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OneAmerica and Campaign Legal Center File Washington Voting Rights Act Letter to the Yakima County Commission

OneAmerica, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Yakima County voters Evangelina “Bengie” Aguilar, Candy “Dulce” Gutierrez, Rogelio Montes, and Susan Soto Palmer submitted a letter to the Yakima County Commission on January 16, 2020, serving notice that the current system of electing candidates to the Yakima County Commission dilutes the votes of Latinos in Yakima County and denies the Latino community an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The letter provides evidence that the system of at-large elections is in violation of the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) and the Washington State Constitution.

“The discriminatory electoral system in Yakima County has led to real consequences for the Latino community,” explained OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz. “Under the current at-large system, Latino voters are unable to elect a candidate of choice to the County Commission. We’ve heard time and again from our members in Yakima County that the lack of representation leads to underinvestment in Latino communities and exacerbates racial inequities that persist in the County.”

A violation of the WVRA occurs when there is racially polarized voting and an electoral system that dilutes the votes of a protected class of voters. Both elements are present in Yakima County’s current electoral system. The county utilizes a district-based top two primary system and an at-large general election system for electing candidates, a similar process to the Yakima City Council’s former electoral system, which a federal court found to have violated the rights of the Latino community in the Montes v. the City of Yakima ruling of 2014.

“As a longtime Yakima resident, I’ve seen the impact that these unfair election systems have on the community,” said complainant Bengie Aguilar. “I’m participating because I believe everyone, no matter their race, nationality or the language they speak, deserves to have a voice in their government.”

The voters and organizations involved in this letter are united in their vision for an inclusive Yakima County that treats all voters equally. In order to assist the county to ensure it is in compliance with the WVRA, the letter provides two potential remedies the Commission could adopt in order to ensure Latino voters are able to have a voice in Commissioner elections, both of which involve ranked-choice voting. Research cited in the letter shows that voters and candidates in localities with RCV embrace it as a means of reducing divisive politics and fostering more inclusive and informative campaigns.

“Free and fair elections require election systems that provide an equal opportunity for everyone to elect candidates of their choice,” said Ruth Greenwood, Co-director of Voting Rights and Redistricting at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “Yakima County’s at-large system for electing candidates is failing its Latino citizens. It harms their ability to engage in the local political process and receive true representation in government. Yakima County must adopt a voting system that ensures all its citizens have a voice in democracy.”

If the county fails to take action within 180 days, the complainants may pursue legal action under the WVRA. 

Read the full letter here.

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