As the drip, drip, drip of election bills targeting people of color continues to erode voting rights across the South, disappointed supporters of democracy can look to Washington and find some hope.
Yakima County commissioners agreed to settle a lawsuit that alleged the way candidates are elected to the county commission dilutes the votes of Latinos in violation of the Washington Voting Rights Act.
The commissioners did the right thing — even as their hand was forced — in recognizing the need for true representation in government.
“The settlement is a win for the county because it serves the best interests of voters,” county officials said in a release, noting that while they agreed to a measure that will enhance Latino voting power, they held off a proposal to also implement a ranked-choice voting system.
The county’s demographics have changed over the last few decades, with the Latino population steadily growing, but that growth has not translated to increased political power. Yakima County is now more than 50% Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census data, yet only one Latino has ever served on the commission, Jesse Palacios from 1998-2006.
Under the current system, candidates are selected in primary elections by geographical district. In the general election, candidates are voted on countywide. This has the effect of diluting the voting power of the Latino electorate, essentially blocking their chosen candidates and producing an outcome that does not truly reflect the community it’s supposed to represent.
The proposed settlement, to be filed in Kittitas County Superior Court, would provide for county commissioners to be elected by voters only in their own district, both in the primary and the general election. All three commission seats will be up for election in 2022, according to Seattle-based OneAmerica, the immigrant rights organization that filed the suit along with four Yakima County voters.
Commissioners wisely heeded the lesson learned by the Yakima City Council, which spent more than $1 million fighting — and losing — a similar case brought against the city in 2012. Back then, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice found that by using an at-large system “the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino minority.”
The shift in Yakima spotlights the positive impact of the Washington Voting Rights Act. Approved by the Legislature in 2018, the law not only allows voters to directly challenge unfair voting systems in their communities, but it also gives municipalities the power to change those systems.
For Latinos in Yakima County, the challenge of ensuring representation in government will now be up to them.
“You don’t win just by changing an election system. You need candidates to step up and run and voters to have their back,” said Robin Engle with OneAmerica. “But for the first time ever, there’s actually a real opportunity and a chance for representation in Yakima County.”
For now, that’s more than reason enough to celebrate.