No Latino has ever been elected to the Yakima City Council in the 37-year history of the current system. Latinos account for approximately one-third of the City’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population.  • Photo by Mattes
No Latino has ever been elected to the Yakima City Council in the 37-year history of the current system. Latinos account for approximately one-third of the City’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population. • Photo by Mattes

A federal court ruled on August 22 that the City of Yakima’s election system for City Council violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The court ruled that the system dilutes Latino votes and that “City Council elections are not ‘equally open to participation’ by members of the Latino minority.”

“This is a major victory for Latinos, communities of color, and the entire nation,” said Kevin Chao, interim board chair of OCA—Greater Seattle, a civil rights group.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, after acts of violence and terrorism against voter-rights activists gained national attention: American civil rights’ workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were murdered in 1964 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1965, state troopers attacked peaceful civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The Voting Rights Act allowed federal examiners to conduct voter registration, and black voter registration saw a sharp increase. The Voting Rights Act opened the door to further Supreme Court’s decisions, voting rights legislation, and ongoing efforts to restore the right to vote guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments. The Voting Rights Act itself has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Although Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, the Yakima case is the first such suit in Washington state, according to the ACLU of Washington.

The ruling came in a lawsuit (Montes v. City of Yakima) filed in 2012 under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits cities from using voting practices or procedures which result in “a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

The suit was brought by Yakima residents Mateo Arteaga, a university administrator, and Rogelio Montes, a student at Yakima Valley College. The ACLU filed the case on behalf of the plaintiffs in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington.

Plaintiffs contended that the City of Yakima’s at-large voting system deprives Latinos of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the Yakima City Council. No Latino has ever been elected to the City Council in the 37-year history of the current system—despite the fact that Latinos account for approximately one-third of the City’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population.

The seven members of the Yakima City Council are all elected “at-large,” with every voting resident of the city casting their vote for each council member whether they live in the council member’s district or not. This has caused the Latino community’s voting strength to be impermissibly diluted, the ACLU said.

Both parties had filed motions for summary judgment after the close of discovery. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case, opposing a section of the City of Yakima’s summary judgment motion. Last week, the court issued its opinion granting the motion in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered the parties jointly to submit a proposed remedial districting plan by October 3.

“The Latino community in Yakima now will have a chance for their interests to be represented on the City Council,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor in a statement. “Latino voters will be able to elect a candidate of their choice and to have more of a say in how city services are distributed. All voices of the community need to be represented in local government. That’s what democracy is all about.”

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