As Yakima residents cast their ballots in the primary election today, the impact of the ACLU-WA’s successful voting rights suit is apparent. Eight Latino candidates are running for City Council seats – a record number for Yakima. One district is certain to have a Latino representative, and a second district is likely to have one as well. The election is the first to be held under the new single-member district system put in place as a result of the suit.
Prior to the suit’s filing in 2012, Yakima voters elected the seven members of the City Council at-large, with every voting resident of the city casting their vote for each council member. Latinos account for approximately one-third of Yakima’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population. Yet in the 37 years of the at-large system, no Latino had ever been elected to the Yakima City Council.
To ensure that Latinos have meaningful opportunity to participate in elections, the ACLU-WA sued the City of Yakima under the federal Voting Rights Act. In 2014, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington found that Yakima’s system of at-large elections dilutes the voting strength of Latinos and that the non-Latino majority in Yakima “routinely suffocates” the voting preferences of the Latino minority. The suit was brought on behalf of Yakima residents Mateo Arteaga, a university administrator, and Rogelio Montes, a student at Yakima Valley College.
The Court subsequently adopted the ACLU’s proposal for a new system of seven single-member districts for City Council. The court noted that this system avoided “concentrating the Latino population into a single geographic district” and corrected the voting rights violation.
“We brought suit so that Latinos could have meaningful vote in City Council elections in Yakima. This primary election is just one part of a long-term process, but it’s an important first step. It’s exciting to see change actually begin to happen,” said ACLU-WA staff attorney La Rond Baker.
Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, but this case, Montes v. City of Yakima, is the first such suit in Washington state. The opinion is available at https://aclu-wa.org/cases/montes-v-city-yakima-0.