Court Orders New District Voting System to Provide Meaningful Voice for Latinos in Yakima Elections

News Release: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ruling Provides for Seven Single-Member Districts, as Proposed by ACLU

The U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington today issued an order requiring Yakima to implement a plan for seven single-member districts for City Council elections. The action followed a 2014 ruling that the city’s election at-large election system unlawfully diluted the votes of Yakima’s Latino residents. The decision came in a lawsuit by the ACLU of Washington challenging Yakima’s system for violating the federal Voting Rights Act.  

“We are very pleased with this ruling. The district system the court has accepted will help ensure that the Latino community in Yakima will have a meaningful voice in City Council elections,” said ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor. “Latino voters now will have a chance for their interests to be represented on the council and have more of a say in how city services are distributed. This will strengthen democracy in Yakima.”

The lawsuit (Montes v. City of Yakima) was filed in 2012 on behalf of Yakima residents Mateo Arteaga, a university administrator, and Rogelio Montes, a student at Yakima Valley College. Plaintiffs contended that the city’s at-large voting system deprives Latinos of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the Yakima City Council. The seven members of the City Council have been all elected at-large, with every voting resident of the city casting their vote for each council member whether they live in the council member’s district or not.  This has caused the Latino community’s voting strength to be impermissibly diluted.  

No Latino has ever been elected to the City Council in the 37-year history of the current system – despite the fact that Latinos account for approximately one-third of the City’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population.

In August 2014, the court found that Yakima election system for City Council violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits cities from using voting practices or procedures which result in “a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The court ruled that Yakima’s system dilutes Latino votes and that “… City Council elections are not ‘equally open to participation’ by members of the Latino minority.” 

According to the ACLU of Washington, although Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, this case is the first such vote dilution suit in Washington state.

After the August 2014 ruling, both the Plaintiffs and the City of Yakima submitted plans to remedy the voting rights violation. In today’s ruling adopting the Plaintiffs’ proposal, the district court noted that Plaintiffs’ remedial plan avoided “concentrating the Latino population into a single geographic district” and corrected the voting rights violation.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and La Rond Baker, Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Joaquin Avila of the Law Firm of Joaquin Avila, and ACLU cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton, Abha Khanna, and Ben Stafford of the firm Perkins Coie, LLC.