Yakima's Election System Deemed in Violation of Voting Rights Act
September 4, 2014
A federal district court judge recently ruled that the City of Yakima’s city council election system violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §1973. Observing that no Latino has ever been elected to the city council in the 37-year history of the current system of electing city councilmembers, despite Latinos making up a third of the city’s voting-age population, the court concluded that Yakima’s city council election system violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the Latino community vote and blocking representation by Latinos.
Yakima’s city charter creates a hybrid election system that combines four residency-restricted positions with three positions not restricted by residency. For the purpose of electing the residency-restricted positions, the city council divided the city into four districts that are to be as nearly equal to population as practicable. The Voting Rights Act problem arises with how council positions are selected. As explained by the court, candidate election occurs as follows:
Eligibility to vote in primary elections depends upon whether the vacant seat is residency restricted. If the seat is residency restricted, only voters residing in the district assigned to that seat may cast a vote. If the seat is not residency restricted, by contrast, voting is open to all registered voters. The candidates with the top two vote totals advance to the general election.
General elections are a contest between two candidates for each open seat. Unlike in primary elections, eligibility to vote does not depend upon whether the open seat is residency restricted; at the general election stage, all registered voters cast a ballot for each seat.
On behalf of two Yakima residents, the ACLU filed suit against the city in 2012, claiming that the city’s election system deprived Latinos of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the city council in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits cities from using voting practices or procedures that result in “a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” 42 U.S.C. §1973(a). The court first considered three preconditions:
- Whether the minority Latino group in Yakima is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member voting district;
- Whether the minority Latino group in Yakima is politically cohesive; and
- Whether the majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to usually defeat the minority Latino group’s preferred candidate.
The court concluded that all three preconditions were met.
The court next weighed numerous factors, including the presence of suspect voting practices and the extent of Latino electoral success on the Yakima City Council, ultimately agreeing with the ACLU that Yakima’s city council election system violates the Voting Rights Act:
The existing record, undisputed in all material respects, supports only one rational conclusion: that under the totality of the circumstances, City Council elections are not “equally open to participation” by Latino voters. 42 U.S.C. § 1973(b). The numbered post system, with its effective majority vote requirement, places Latino voters at a steep mathematical disadvantage, even when their voting strength is perfectly optimized. This built-in disadvantage “interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality”… Because non-Latino voters consistently vote for non-Latino candidates (at a rate of 60% to 70%), the chances of a Latino-preferred candidate earning enough “crossover” votes to win a City Council seat are very slim. Indeed, no Latino candidate has ever been elected under this system. Having established that the Latino minority’s votes are being unlawfully diluted, Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment.
In so concluding, the judge noted that "the Court does not mean to suggest that non-Latinos are deliberately conspiring to outvote their Latino colleagues, or that the City has engaged in any wrongdoing."
The court’s order directs the city to work with the ACLU on drafting a proposed redistricting plan to be submitted to the court on October 3, 2014. (Alternatively, if the two parties cannot agree, each party drafts and submits its own plan.)
Governor Inslee weighed in on the court decision, writing a letter to the city council urging the city "not appeal the Court’s decision and instead focus on implementing a plan to address this serious issue.” After a city council executive session, the mayor indicated that the city intends to comply with the court's order but has not yet decided on a potential future appeal.
Photo 'Voting' courtesy of thomas.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.