Victory: Yakima County Latino Leaders Achieve Historic Settlement with Board of Commissioners

This week, we got some incredible news.

As many of you know, OneAmerica, along with Campaign Legal Center and plaintiffs from Yakima County, sent a letter to the Yakima County Commission saying that the current voting system dilutes the votes of Latinos in Yakima County and denies the Latino community an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The letter gave them 180 days to respond.

They didn’t.

So we sued them.

The trial was supposed to start this week, but then we got the good news: the Yakima County Board of Commissioners decided to settle.

On August 30th, the Yakima County Board of Commissioners agreed to change the County’s current election system to no longer violate Latino voters’ rights. The Commission agreed to a court-ordered change under the Washington Voting Rights Act in response to a lawsuit brought by four Yakima County voters and OneAmerica. The settlement comes after years of Latino organizing for representation in the face of election systems that suppress Latino votes in Yakima County. The plaintiffs are represented by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Washington-based law firm MacDonald, Hoague & Bayless.

Under this agreement, Latinos, people of color, and immigrants in Yakima County will for the first time have an equal opportunity to elect candidates who are responsive to their needs and priorities. As part of the settlement, the County agreed to replace the current at-large system with a system in which County Commissioners are elected in single-member districts in the primary and general elections. All three seats will be up for election in 2022. The settlement will lay the groundwork for the residents of Yakima County to enact additional democratic reforms, such as ranked choice voting, to make the County government more responsive to the needs of all residents of Yakima County. The settlement also serves as a powerful warning to other Washington counties with election systems that deny voters of color an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

“This settlement is a huge win for our community,” said Bengie Aguilar, one of the plaintiffs. “The current system cuts us, Latino voters, out of our democracy. This new election system will provide Latino voters with an equal opportunity to elect candidates of our choice to the Yakima County Commission.”

The lawsuit was brought by Yakima County voters Bengie Aguilar, Susan Soto Palmer, Dulce Gutierrez, and Rogelio Montes, together with OneAmerica, against the Yakima County Board of Commissioners. Even though Latinos make up over 50% of the county, Latino candidates of choice have rarely been elected to political office in Yakima County. Only one Latino candidate has ever been elected to the County Board.

The Washington Voting Rights Act prohibits local governments from maintaining an election system that deprives communities of color equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. It permits local governments to adopt any number of remedies to cure potential violations of the act and work collaboratively with the community to do so outside of litigation. The plaintiffs attempted to work with the Commission on a voluntary solution that would have avoided litigation prior to filing suit, but the Commission did not respond.

“We are pleased that the Latino community in Yakima County will have access to fair political representation for the next decade,” said Annabelle Harless, senior legal counsel, redistricting, at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “Our historic settlement agreement is the first under the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). The successful outcome of this case lays the groundwork for a new election system that will make county government more inclusive, equitable, and responsive to the needs of our clients and all residents of Yakima County.”

This settlement has ramifications across the state. It proves that voting systems that suppress representation by any group of voters is a violation of our democracy, of our freedom. To other municipalities in Washington: take note of what happened here. If your election system is discriminatory, if it allows a slim white majority to dictate health boards, language access, and funding decisions: it is on the way out.

Democracy is the winner today.