A Supreme Court decision on voting rights and Yakima’s losing court fight should serve as beacons to other Washington state cities where at-large elections may be preventing segments of their populations from receiving proportionate representation in local government.
THIS week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on voting rights and Yakima’s losing court fight over elections should serve as beacons to other Washington cities where at-large elections may be preventing segments of their populations from receiving proportionate representation.
The Yakima City Council voted Tuesday to end its appeal in a federal lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union brought against the city in 2012. It cost the city $1.1 million to fight, and lose, the case, and it owes another $1.7 million to cover the ACLU’s legal costs.
The federal lawsuit challenged Yakima’s at-large City Council elections, which had never produced a Latino council member, even though Latinos make up 40 percent of the city’s population. The city was ordered to set up City Council elections by districts. In the first election under that system, three Latinas became council members.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the method of creating voting districts based on total population. The Texas plaintiffs in the case (Evenwel v. Abbott) held that districts should be based on the number of eligible voters.
The previous Yakima City Council, which ponied up $30,000 to file an amicus brief in the Texas case, had hoped a win by the plaintiffs would help its appeal. No such luck. On Tuesday, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported current council members were all smiles as they voted 6-0 to end its appeal.
At least two cities — Pasco and Wenatchee — have started efforts to avoid expensive court fights over their elections.
A Wenatchee city committee is reviewing its election structure.
In Pasco, city officials say they want to change to general elections by districts but are prevented from doing so under the state law that requires “non-charter code cities” to hold citywide general elections, the kind found to be the problem in Yakima.
In a letter to Pasco, Emily Chiang, legal director for the ACLU of Washington, noted that Latinos make up 55 percent of the city’s population, but the only Latino to serve on the council was appointed and later ran unopposed.
“These cities are in a difficult position,” Chiang said. “They can’t easily change to correct an unfair election system.”
A state Attorney General’s opinion in January stated that these cities could conduct elections “in a way that is otherwise inconsistent with state law if, but only if, (they can show) that federal law compels its action.” So a federal threat, a la Yakima, still rules the day.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The Legislature has failed to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act four times. This act would allow cities such as Pasco and Wenatchee to change their election systems.
Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, an advocate for the state act, says his group is exploring the possibility of a ballot measure.
Whatever the route, it’s time to enact the Washington Voting Rights Act and to help cities make elections fair to all.