Voting Rights Act in Yakima, Part I: Racially Polarized Voting

By Krist Novoselić (August 30, 2014)

On August 22, 2014 United States District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled that the City Of Yakima’s voting system was in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling identifies the city’s at-large voting system as the culprit for racially polarized voting. In the next installment about this issue, I will argue that the problem is winner-take-all rules and not at-large arrangements. Yakima can use this ruling to move beyond districts towards a truly inclusive voting system for all its voters. Until then, let us look at a recent instance of racially polarized voting in Yakima County.

Washington State held a primary election in August of 2012. One race for a seat on the State Supreme Court raised concerns over the issue of racially polarized voting in the Yakima area. Election returns revealed vote count disparities in the race between Steve Gonzalez and Bruce Danielson. Danielson, an obscure lawyer from Kitsap County beat Gonzalez who was an incumbent by appointment to the bench. Research points to voters choosing the candidate on surname alone – voters simply rejected the Latino.

Unlike other areas in the state, Danielson beat Gonzalez by 28 percent. The disparities in the race are so glaring that researchers conducted a study (Barreto, Caldwell, Oskooii, 2012). By comparing this race with other statewide races in the Yakima area and beyond, there is strong evidence of racially polarized voting. The study points to how Gonzalez was an incumbent justice who ran a well funded campaign with top endorsements. His opponent Danielson didn’t raise any money nor did he campaign or gain any key endorsements. Yet, Danielson was the top-performing candidate in Yakima and Grant counties – receiving over 70 percent of the vote. In comparison, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna came close to, but could not crack 60 percent of the vote in the August primary. Most stunning is the comparison to Susan Owens, another sitting Justice who ran a similar campaign to Gonzalez’. She won over 60 percent of the primary vote in her race. Apparently, implicit attitudes manifested among many voters compelling them to vote in a way inconsistent with other choices on the ballot.

This situation shows characteristics of the out-group homogeneity effect. Voters / perceivers, “assume that there is similarity among members of out-groups than among members of one’s own group” (Kassin, Fein, Markus p. 167). Many voters took Gonzalez’ name as a cue for his association with an out-group (Latinos) to go as far as discounting his qualifications for public office.

Information is important regarding the strength of an attitude and behavior. Ballot design could have contributed to the distortions in the Gonzalez-Danielson race. Washington judicial races are non-partisan – meaning there is no party cue on the ballot itself. Gerald C. Wright states in a 2008 paper, “Deprived of the party cue [on the ballot] . . . voters rely on a wide variety of cues, including race, ethnicity, familiarity, place, prestige, religion, and even ballot location.” There was no state issued primary election voters guide available to voters. The Barreto study states that Snohomish County, Washington did mail a voters guide to all voters and that data shows no evidence of racially polarized voting.

Voters cast incomplete ballots with non-partisan offices because without party labels, a significant fraction of the electorate finds no basis for a decision (Wright p. 14). This phenomenon has various terms such as “undervote”, “fatigue” and “drop-off”. Data published by the Yakima County Auditor's office reveals the drop-off rate with Gonzalez-Danielson at 23.35 percent. This was similar to the Owens contest . In contrast, the gubernatorial primary line drop-off was 1.32 percent. The national average of State Supreme Court races drop-off is 25.6 percent (Hall 2007).

The Barreto study doesn’t mention drop-off, however, my brief drop-off analysis suggests voters that completed the judicial races had all the information they needed to commit discriminatory behavior. Voters lacking knowledge seemingly dropped off, while those with attitudes perceiving Latinos as an out-group voted against Gonzalez. At the same time, many of these voters chose the Anglo-named Owens in the other judicial contest.

Yakima county’s Latino population is 45.8 percent (Census 2010). Barreto compares election results with Snohomish County where Gonzalez obtained similar results to Owens. Snohomish Latino population according to census information is at 9.2 percent. Even though Yakima County is nearly half Latino, voting patterns are hardly integrated. The results of the Gonzalez-Danielson race offer strong evidence of racially polarized voting.

Unlike other areas of the state, many voters in the Yakima area didn’t see a qualified candidate for the bench in Gonzalez. Instead, by the cue of a surname, they used the process of social categorization to manifest the out-group homogeneity effect to make their choice on the ballot.

Works Cited

Barreto, M.A., Caldwell, C., Oskooii K.A.R., (2012) Dissecting Voting Patterns in the González-Danielson Supreme Court Contest in Washington State.

Wright, G.C., Charles Adrian and the Study of non-Partisan Elections. Political Research Quarterly Volume 61 Number 1 (March 2008) 13-16

Hall, M.G., Voting in State Supreme Court Elections: Competition and Context as Democratic Incentives The Journal of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) 1147-1159

Yakima County Auditor, Elections Division

Voting Rights in Yakima

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