In a lawsuit filed under the federal Voting Rights Act, two Yakima citizens today charged that the City of Yakima’s election system unlawfully dilutes the Latino vote and effectively prevents Latinos from meaningful participation in City Council elections.
The suit was brought by Yakima residents Mateo Arteaga, a university administrator, and Rogelio Montes, a student at Yakima Valley College. The ACLU and prominent voting rights expert Joaquin Avila filed the case on behalf of the plaintiffs in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington. Although Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, this case is the first such suit in Washington state.
The seven members of the Yakima City Council are 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. As a result, although Latino residents comprise 41% of Yakima’s population and more than 22% of its citizen voting-age population, no Latino candidate has ever won an election for a seat on the city council.
“The Latino community is a significant portion of the city’s population, yet their interests are not adequately represented on the Yakima City Council. All voices of the community need to be represented on the city council,” said ACLU of Washington legal director Sarah Dunne.
The lawsuit says Yakima’s election system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it impermissibly dilutes the Latino vote, consistently allows the majority population’s bloc voting to defeat the candidates preferred by Latino voters, and deprives Latinos of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. The ACLU sent a letter to the Yakima City Council in December 2010, and another on August 13, 2012, pointing out that its election system violated the Voting Rights Act and urging the City of Yakima to adopt a true district-based election system wherein only voters in a particular district vote for the representative of that district. The city council has declined to do so.
The suit seeks a declaration that the at-large method of electing Yakima City Council members violates the Voting Rights Act and to have the court order the City to implement a district-based election system that complies with Section 2 of the Act.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and La Rond Baker, Joaquin Avila of the Law Firm of Joaquin Avila, and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, and ACLU cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton and Noah Purcell of the firm Perkins Coie.