Déjà Vu All Over Again: Suit Alleges Latinx Voters Disenfranchised By Yakima County Election Syste

1 hour ago
Originally published on July 13, 2020 3:45 pm

Dulce Gutierrez, right, Assistant Mayor of Yakima, speaks Jan. 5, 2018, during a news conference at the Capitol in Olympia about the need to address voter access in the state.

File photo. Dulce Gutierrez, right, Assistant Mayor of Yakima, speaks Jan. 5, 2018, during a news conference at the Capitol in Olympia about the need to address voter access in the state. CREDIT: Ted S. Warren/AP

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Yakima County is being sued over how it runs elections. In a lawsuit filed Monday, plaintiffs argue the current at-large voting system dilutes Latinx votes. That would violate the Washington State Voting Rights Act.

The lawsuit comes as a result of the county Board of Commissioners’ inaction after civil rights groups OneAmerica and the Campaign Legal Center urged an election system change in January, according to the lawsuit.

Yakima County prosecutor Joseph Brusic, who spoke on behalf of the Board of Commissioners as their legal counsel, said the county has looked into allegations made by plaintiffs, but that work has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the current electoral system, candidates for county commission have to get past a district primary. Then, the top two candidates from each district face-off in county-wide elections.

Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit less than a month before upcoming primary elections on August 4. Two county commissioner seats are up for grabs in Yakima County this November.

Plaintiff Rogelio Montes says even if majority-Latinx communities back a candidate in their district, the election is decided by a slight majority of white voters county-wide. Elections in Yakima County are largely polarized along racial lines, according to the lawsuit.

“Basically, it guarantees that we can’t elect a candidate that offers us public policies to benefit our needs as a community,” Montes said in Spanish during an online press conference Monday.

Montes was also a plaintiff in a 2012 lawsuit against the city of Yakima over a similar voting system. Two years later, federal courts sided with plaintiffs and forced the city to rework its election system by redrawing district boundaries and getting rid of at-large elections.

In the case against the city of Yakima, a federal court found that there was “no serious dispute that voting in Yakima is racially polarized” and “the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino community.”

Though about half of Yakima County residents are Latinx, only one Latinx candidate has been elected to the county commission, according to the lawsuit. At least three Latinx candidates have run for the Yakima County Board of Commissioners in the last five years.

Evangelina Bengie Aguilar is also a plaintiff in the case and served on the Sunnyside City Council from 2001 to 2005. Aguilar says at-large elections put off Latinx candidates with limited resources.

“Can we call this a democracy if we know in advance that none of our preferred candidates will ultimately be elected?” Aguilar said Monday at a press conference. “Democracy means government of the people, by the people, for the people. All the people. Democracy is not working on the Yakima County Commission.”

County Prosecutor Brusic said under the state Voting Rights Act, county officials have 180 days to investigate claims of violations. In that time, county officials have been working with the plaintiff’s counsel and have reached out to a demographer and the county’s Geographic Information Services (GIS) department for map data.

“We have to take, obviously, a very serious look at everything that we do,” Brusic said. “And when we are given notice that people disagree with how we handle things currently, we’re duty-bound to look at what is allowable under the law and what is the right thing to do on behalf of the voters of Yakima County.”

But Brusic said coronavirus pandemic has delayed the county’s investigation, preventing officials from engaging voters on the issue effectively. Brusic said the county asked plaintiffs in April for a 60-day extension, but they denied the request.

“Unequivocally, we’ll continue to work in good faith. We’ll continue to work in the spirit of cooperation,” Brusic said. “We’re going to continue to obtain information and evidence which we then can use in either defending our position in the lawsuit or in implementing possibly a new way to reach out to the voters here.”

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