Federal Court Rules Yakima's Voting System Violates Voting Rights Act

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
August 25, 2014 10:35 am

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Ruling Will Provide Meaningful Voice for Latinos in Yakima City Council Elections

August 22, 2014

CONTACT: media@aclu.org

A federal court today ruled 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.” According to the ACLU of Washington, although Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, this case is the first such suit in Washington state.

“The Latino community in Yakima now will have a chance for their interests to be represented on the City Council. 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,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

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.

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. This afternoon, the court issued its opinion granting our motion, and ordered the parties jointly to submit a proposed remedial districting plan by October 3. The opinion is available at https://aclu-wa.org/cases/montes-v-city-yakima-0.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and La Rond Baker, Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Joaquin Avila of the Law Firm of Joaquin Avila, and ACLU cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton, Abha Khanna, and Ben Stafford of the firm Perkins Coie, LLC.

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