The Yakima County Board of Commissioners agreed to change the county’s current election system to no longer violate Latino voters’ rights on Aug. 30, 2021. The commission agreed to a court-ordered change under the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) in response to a lawsuit brought by four Yakima County voters and OneAmerica.
The outcome of this trial comes after years of Latino organizing for representation in the face of election systems that suppress Latino votes in Yakima County. The plaintiffs are represented by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and local counsel.
The historic settlement agreement is the first under the WVRA.
Under this agreement, Latinos, people of color and immigrants in Yakima County will for the first time have an equal opportunity to elect candidates who are responsive to their needs and priorities.
As part of the settlement, the county agreed to replace the current at-large system with a system in which county commissioners are elected in single-member districts in the primary and general elections.
All three seats will be up for election in 2022. The settlement will lay the groundwork for the residents of Yakima County to enact additional democratic reforms, such as ranked choice voting, to make county government more responsive to the needs of all residents of Yakima County.
The settlement also serves as a powerful warning to other Washington counties with election systems that deny voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
The lawsuit was brought by Yakima County voters Bengie Aguilar, Susan Soto Palmer, Dulce Gutierrez and Rogelio Montes, together with OneAmerica, against the Yakima County Board of Commissioners.
Even though Latinos make up over 50% of the county and 31% of the county’s citizen voting age population, Latino candidates of choice have rarely been elected to political office in Yakima County. Only one Latino candidate has ever been elected to the county board.
The Washington Voting Rights Act prohibits local governments from maintaining an election system that deprives communities of color equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
It permits local governments to adopt any number of remedies to cure potential violations of the act and work collaboratively with the community to do so outside of litigation. The plaintiffs attempted to work with the commission on a voluntary solution that would have avoided litigation prior to filing suit, but the commission did not respond.
This effort is part of a larger CLC initiative to advocate for state-level voting rights acts – which are becoming increasingly important to protecting the freedom to vote – in a challenging national landscape for voters.