By Abha Khanna and William B. Stafford
Latino residents have prevailed in Washington's first voting dilution challenge brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), 42 U.S.C. 1973, successfully striking down the at-large election system for city councilmembers in the City of Yakima.1 As ordered by the Hon. Thomas O. Rice in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Yakima must now conduct City Council elections based on single-member districts to provide Latino voters the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.
For decades, the City of Yakima has utilized an at-large election system to fill its seven City Council seats. Each Yakima City Council position has been determined in a citywide, general election in which the candidate with the most votes wins.
This electoral system has prevented Latinos from electing their candidates of choice. Although nearly 42 percent of Yakima's population is Latino, the city has never elected a Latino to the City Council. The only Latina ever appointed to the Yakima City Council lost when she ran for election the first time.
In December 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a demand letter to the Yakima City Council, stating that the City's election system violated the VRA and urging it to adopt a district-based election system. The City Council rejected the ACLU's request that the City alter its election system voluntarily. Efforts to change the electoral system through the ballot box also failed. In August 2011, Yakima voters rejected a ballot proposition that would have required district-based elections for the City Council, despite overwhelming support from Latino voters.
Plaintiffs Rogelio Montes and Mateo Arteaga, two Latino citizens and voters in the City of Yakima, filed their Section 2 lawsuit against the City of Yakima, as well as each of the sitting councilmembers in their official capacities, on August 22, 2012. Plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Washington, ACLU Voting Rights Project, Perkins Coie LLP as cooperating counsel, and Joaquin Avila of Avila Law Offices.
The complaint alleged that Yakima's at-large election process "violates Section 2 of the [VRA] because it impermissibly dilutes the Latino vote." The complaint further alleged all of the factors necessary for a Section 2 lawsuit, namely that:
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