Press Release: Yakima County Residents Hold Commission Accountable, File Suit



Yakima, WA – Today, a group of Yakima County residents took a step to hold the Yakima County Commission legally accountable to respect the voting rights of the Latino community and all Yakima residents by taking them to court.

Read the complaint here.

The plaintiffs, OneAmerica and Campaign Legal Center will host a virtual press event via Zoom at 11 AM today, 7/13/2020. Register and join here.

When all Yakima residents are engaged and have an opportunity to have their voices heard, our local democracy gets stronger and serves the needs of our communities. Unfortunately, Yakima County election systems unfairly take power from the Latino community, in violation of their voting rights, leaving almost half of the population excluded from representation. 20 years have passed with no Latino representation at all, and we can’t keep waiting. 180 days ago a group of Yakima residents put the Commission on notice, asking them to respect their voting rights and create an election system that includes everyone. The Commission had the opportunity to seek a voluntary solution, but they failed to follow through, conduct outreach to the community or suggest a solution and instead ran down the clock. In doing so, they failed the community.

“To make changes in our government, it is important that we have the ability to elect candidates of our choice,” said Rogelio Montes, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who also held the City of Yakima accountable to changing their voting system five years ago. “The government should bring us together, but it is leaving the Latino community behind. In order for us to reduce crime and make sure our tax money is being spent wisely, we need to hear from everyone.”

The County Commission relies on the same unfair election system that the Yakima City Council did before Montes won his challenge in Montes v. City of Yakima – a system that the Court ruled violates the voting rights of the Latino community. It was the wrong system for the City Council, and it’s the wrong system for the County Commission.

Excluding Latinos from government causes very real harm. “Right now Yakima’s Latino residents are fighting for their lives during a global pandemic where they are disproportionately getting sick and dying.” remarked Deputy Director Roxana Norouzi. OneAmerica is a party to the lawsuit. “Many of them are farmworkers, essential workers who have no choice but to risk their lives to keep our food supplies strong. Wealthy farm owners have refused to provide adequate PPE, socially distanced lodging and hazard pay, putting workers in danger to maximize their profits. The Commission has not held farm owners accountable to keep farmworkers safe and has put the community at risk. The County Commission oversees the Yakima Health District and is responsible for keeping all of us safe, yet they have ceded their responsibility and left Latino residents alone and unsafe during a pandemic.”

This is just one example among many where the County Commission has failed Yakima and the Latino community, and where racist and unfair election systems lead to tragic real-life consequences.

Yakima resident and OneAmerica Organizer Mary Lopez pointed out the clear racial divide in treatment. “The County Commission has chosen to side with the powerful, wealthy and white, like farm and ranch owners instead of farmers and workers,” said Lopez. “We pay our taxes, and yet our communities are suffering from great poverty and lack of investment. Where are our taxes going? Investments are continually made in west Yakima, not where we live in east Yakima.”

“Democracy only works when we fight for it,” said Campaign Legal Center Co-Director on Voting Rights and Redistricting Ruth Greenwood. “Under state law, all County residents have the right to elect candidates of their choice to represent them. The County Commission needs to change how elections are run to give the Latino community a voice and comply with the law. After much research, our plaintiffs are recommending ranked choice voting with three winners as the best electoral solution to make sure Latinos have a voice in Yakima.”

RCV is a system where voters can rank their candidate preferences. To elect three commissioners with RCV, each of the winning candidates has to win at least 25% of the votes. RCV will make our elections more equitable: one in three county residents will have the opportunity to elect one of the three commissioners.

“We are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to equality and true representation in Yakima County,” said Bengie Aguilar, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Ranked choice voting is a different way to vote that would create new and diverse leadership – with more opportunity for the voices of voters to be heard. In order to ensure that our elected officials represent us and have our bests interests in mind, we need to change the status quo. Ranked choice voting is the beginning of a new wave, and we want to be part of this progressive change in the way we conduct elections.”