Voting Rights Act in Yakima, Part 2: Options for the City and All Voters

By Krist Novoselić (September 11, 2014)

A federal court has ruled that Yakima’s elections are in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Some may think that the City’s only options are to accept seven individual districts or appeal the ruling. This assumption is untrue as Yakima has more alternatives available than ceding to a district plan or wading forward with more litigation. A simple change to the voting rules can have Yakima keep at-large elections, while at the same time remedy issues of voter dilution.

Exclusive districts are not a solution mandated by the VRA. Making these so-called majority-minority districts is a decision by the parties in the lawsuit. Judge Rice’s ruling may have called on the City to submit a district plan, notwithstanding, legal precedence allows the defendant jurisdiction the choice of election systems as long its proposal actually does remedy the vote dilution. In other words — Yakima can choose to implement voting rules other than majority-minority districts.

Instead of districts, Yakima could submit fair representation voting rules similar to how many cities in Alabama, Connecticut and Pennsylvania elect their governing bodies. When Yakima has three seats up for election, all candidates could run against one another, and voters would cast one vote. One person gets one vote to elect three people. After all the votes are counted, the top three vote getters win election. The effect of this kind of voting is that the majority rules on the local level — but the minority has a seat at the table.

This system would solve the voter dilution issues in Yakima because in years with three council seats on the ballot, it would take 25 percent or less to get elected — a threshold the city’s Latinos voting in a bloc can cross to win a seat. When four seats are elected, it would take just over 20 percent to win.

The one-vote system could retain key aspects of the system that was challenged. Yakima could keep its four districts and advance the top-two vote getters from the primary to the general. These candidates would run at-large, but instead of the top-two squaring off, all of the general election candidates would be on a single ballot line. If the city staggers elections, voters would have one vote to elect three seats in one year, or one vote to elect four seats in another.

For 30 years now, over 100 jurisdictions in the United States have used various fair representation systems instead of districts to remedy their VRA cases – including three VRA cases brought by the Department of Justice in the past decade. Santa Clarita, California just this year is the most recent jurisdiction opting for cumulative voting rights, which is another version of fair representation voting.

Ranked choice voting is form of fair representation that would allow Yakima to save the costs of holding primary elections. Cambridge, Massachusetts is a majority-white city that has used this system for seventy years, and has had continuous representation of people of color on its city council since the 1950’s.

The plaintiff’s in the case seek the creation of two majority-minority districts. This way, districts would be drawn with the intention of creating Latino majorities in those areas of the city. Yakima argued in its defense that Latinos outside of these specially created districts would then be excluded — effectively replacing one VRA violation with another. In response, the court shrugged that districts “always result in a dilution of minority voting strength in the remaining districts.” Yakima can still stand by its defense — along with a meaningful choice of candidate for every Latino voter — by requesting a fair representation alternative to districts.

In 2011, Yakima voters said no to districts. By calling for an alternative remedy, the City can respect the results of Proposition 1 while still chart its own course. Using at-large arrangements like the one-vote system lets voters decide who represent them and not political elites who draw and approve exclusive districts.

Local governments in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and many other places around the nation for years use fair representation voting to elect stable and effective representation. The plaintiff’s in the VRA case want a seat at the table. Alternatives to exclusive districts can provide this while Yakima still makes its own way for all its voters.

Voting Rights in Yakima

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