Voting Rights Act in Yakima, Part 3: An Inclusive Compromise Proposal

By Krist Novoselić (December 21, 2014)

Soon after the summary ruling finding Yakima in violation of Sec. 2 of the VRA, political and opinion leaders suggested the City not appeal. Governor Jay Inslee wrote a letter to the city council saying, “I want to respectfully request that the Council send a clear message by voting to not appeal the Court’s decision and instead focus on implementing a plan to address this serious issue.” The Seattle Times editorial board wrote, that, “Yakima should abandon any notion of a costly appeal.” And guess what? Yakima did not appeal. It did however, offer a compromise that allows it to stand by its argument regarding representation for all of the city’s Latino voters — and not only those who are drawn into exclusive districts.

Latinos make up roughly one-quarter of the Yakima's citizen voting age population, yet a Latino has never been elected to office. Most tend to blame at-large elections as the barrier to Latinos electing representatives. At-large elections are not the problem in themselves — the real culprit is the winner-take-all voting rules that allow the same majority bloc to dominate every seat up for election.

Here is the system the ruling threw out: Yakima’s city council has seven members. It staggers its elections to where half the seats are in front of voters every two years. All seats are elected at-large, with each one a separate contest. Four of the seats are associated with residency districts; featuring an exclusive primary election where candidates and voters must live in that district. In each contest, residency and at-large, the top-two vote winners in the primary advance to the general to face all of the City's voters.

The problem for Latino candidates has not been getting through the primary. It was winning in the citywide election, one-on-one against a white candidate. A Latino would advance to the general, but could not overcome the 50 percent threshold.

The Court agreed with plaintiff’s evidence of racially polarized voting and Yakima’s at-large elections were struck down. In the ruling, the Court ordered Yakima to submit a plan for seven exclusive districts. Two of the districts need to have a majority of Latino voters. These “majority-minority” districts mean the lines are drawn to allow Latinos to elect a preferred candidate, which likely would be a Latino.

Before the ruling, Yakima argued that majority-minority districts only created another VRA violation. They made the case for Latinos who lived outside of the proposed exclusive districts. Judge Rice, in his summary ruling, basically shrugged off the argument saying majority-minority districts, “always result in a dilution of minority voting strength in the remaining districts”. In other words, too bad for the Latino voters not living in the exclusive districts. Yakima is rejecting this notion of collateral damage.

Yakima submitted a hybrid district / at-large plan that is a compromise allowing for representation of all its Latino voters — and not just for those who were drawn into a majority district:

First, the proposal creates five exclusive districts — including one majority-minority district and one “opportunity” district. By opportunity, the City offers demographic growth estimates where Latinos can be the majority in that district by the end of the decade.

Second, Yakima is also proposing a modified at-large system for the remaining two seats on the council. The plan cures majority bloc voting by using a semi-proportional voting system. Political scientists call this the single non-transferable vote although it might be simply called “the single vote system.” The effect of this is it would take no more than a third of the vote to win a seat. A candidate backed strongly by Latino voters can cross this threshold.

The district / modified at-large hybrid could provide two Latino seats on the council. In addition, if demographic estimates hold up, there is an opportunity for a third seat.

The City of Yakima has been a good faith player with diversity. In 2008, Latina Sonia Rodriguez was appointed by the City to fill a vacancy on their council. When she ran for election in 2009 for an at-large position, she came in second place to lose the seat. The judge in the ruling offers this as evidence of how the majority bloc defeats Latinos. Notwithstanding, the election results are a good example of how Yakima’s modified at-large proposal accommodates minorities. With 42.6 percent of the vote, Rodriguez would have been one of the top two winners if that system were in use. The ruling also says that she received an estimated 92.8 percent of the Latino vote. While this evidence of racial polarization is concerning, on the other hand, it demonstrates how his community can rally behind a single candidate — the key to making a modified at-large system an effective way to elect a minority.

Majority-minority districts are not explicit in the VRA. This kind of remedy is a product of the course of law. A remedy like what Yakima is proposing is also established jurisprudence. Over 100 jurisdictions in the US use a modified at-large system to create opportunities for minority representation. Many cities in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Alabama and others use it to give minorities a voice. This includes minority political views and is how Republicans get elected in urban areas and Democrats win in rural places.

On October 20th, FairVote, an election reform advocacy group I work with, filed an amicus brief proposing Yakima elect at least three seats with the single vote system. With three seats elected by the single vote, any group of voters making up to a quarter of the vote would be able to consistently elect a preferred candidate.

The City of Yakima accepted FairVote’s brief. Unfortunately, the plaintiffs seem less willing to compromise. Their attorneys, who include the American Civil Liberties Union, are arguing that state law does not allow a modified at-large system. Nevertheless, federal law typically trumps state law in such cases. Furthermore, the Washington Voting Rights Act changes state law to accommodate the remedy that Yakima is proposing. This bill has passed the Washington State House and is legislation supported by both the ACLU and FairVote.

Why do the plaintiffs oppose a compromise in the spirit of legislation that their attorneys and even the Seattle Times supports?

Every voter deserves representation. With Yakima’s compromise, it is voters, and not lawyers or political insiders, who decide who to best represent them. Yakima shows good faith by standing up for every Latino voter in the city.


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