Activists and voting rights advocates put local governments on notice this week when they settled a lawsuit with Yakima County to rewrite its election process.
According to the settlement, both parties admitted that a court would find evidence that the county’s election system violates the state’s Voting Rights Act.
Yakima County’s system of government is used by 31 other counties across the state. At least one is facing a similar legal challenge.
Voting rights advocates are calling the settlement with Yakima County a “watershed moment.”
“This settlement has ramifications across the state. It proves that voting systems that repress representation by any group of voters is a violation of our democracy and of our freedom. To other municipalities in Washington, take note of what happened here. If your election is discriminatory, if it allows a slim white majority to dictate health boards, language access and funding decisions, it is on its way out," said Roxana Norouzi, addressing a crowd during a press conference Wednesday.
Norouzi is the executive director of One America, which is a statewide immigrant and refugee advocacy organization, and one of several plaintiffs in the case against Yakima County.
She said Yakima’s voting system made it virtually impossible for a Latino or Indigenous person to win an election, despite the 2020 census showing Latinos make up about 50% of the county’s population.
“The way that the election system works in Yakima County is that it is a district-based election, so the voters in your district vote for you in the primary, but then the entire county votes for your position in the general. Part of the lawsuit was that practice was discriminatory and it didn’t allow for Latinos and other people of color to be elected," she said.
Now that the two parties have settled, the county will now only use district elections for commissioner races, the maps will be redrawn and county elections will happen in even years, when turnout is higher.
In a press release, the Yakima County Commissioners also called the settlement a win, saying it allowed them to avoid ranked choice voting, which was the other option voting rights group offered them before they sued the county.
According to the Washington State Association of Counties, Yakima’s election system is the norm, not the exception, for county governments.
Most larger counties in the state have voluntarily changed their charters to district elections, including King, Clark and Pierce Counties. Spokane County is changing to district elections due to a state law going into effect that only applies to Spokane.
Most small counties, including several in central and northeast Washington which have high percentages of Latino and Indigenous residents, use the district primary and countywide general election approach.
Eric Johnson, the executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, said in the wake of the challenge to Yakima’s elections, some counties are discussing their own systems.
“I think we would advise them to certainly be aware of what’s transpired in Yakima, what’s transpiring right now in Franklin, what went on in Ferry County,” he said. “With all of that, it’s really wise for them to prepare for potential conversations that will come in their community. I think that’s very prudent and judicious of them to do.”
Franklin County, which is east of Yakima County, is 54% Latino according to the 2020 Census. It was sued by voting rights groups in May. Ferry County has also received a complaint from the Colville Tribe.
Johnson said the state Voting Rights Act does give counties the option to change their own form of governments.
“If a jurisdiction starts to see that folks in that protected class want to proceed in potential litigation, this is a way that all entities come together to find a potential alternative solution than going through a litigation process," he said.
Norouzi said after the group’s win in Yakima County, the organization is looking at other governments, both cities and counties, for potential violations of the Voting Rights Act. She said they are open to conversations, but are willing to take legal action again.