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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge rules against Yakima in voting rights case

Mike Faulk Yakima Herald-Republic

After two years of litigation, a federal judge has ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union in its voting rights lawsuit against the city of Yakima, bringing potentially dramatic change to Yakima city politics.

In a summary judgment issued Friday afternoon, the judge said the ACLU’s case was strong enough to vacate a trial and should move directly to the remediation phase, where both the ACLU and the city will present proposals for changing the way City Council members are elected. The ACLU already has proposed all-district voting for the seven council members.

The ruling determined that Yakima’s current election system violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the Latino community vote.

“In the final analysis, there is only one rational conclusion to be drawn” from the evidence provided by the ACLU, federal Judge Thomas O. Rice wrote in a 67-page opinion. “That the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino minority.”

Yakima currently elects council members under a hybrid system of at-large and district voting, a system which has been in place since 1976. Four of the council members are elected in districts during the primary, but all seven seats are voted on at-large in the general election.

Opponents said the system has allowed a pattern of racially polarized voting to prevent Latinos from being effectively represented on the council.

Rice also granted an injunction against any future City Council elections under the current system. The next City Council elections are scheduled to take place next year.

Rice scheduled Oct. 3 for the first hearing in the remedy phase, where both sides will submit remedial redistricting plans.

Yakima City Manager Tony O’Rourke said it will be up to council members to decide whether the city should appeal the ruling.

“It’s their prerogative,” O’Rourke said. “They’ll sit down with our attorneys and determine the next course of action.”

The city already had spent more than $743,000 defending its position. It’s likely the ACLU will also seek an award of legal fees for its expenses in the case, which could exceed $1 million and are not covered under the city’s insurance pool in this case.

Latinos make up more than 41 percent of Yakima’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. census, but not one has ever been elected to the Yakima City Council. Latinos make up about a third of the city’s voting-age population.

A demographer and expert witness for the ACLU previously gave the court seven examples of how Yakima might elect council members under geographic districts. Those examples include Latino majority districts that the city had argued would marginalize Latinos in other parts of the city and would be unconstitutional.

In a statement issued late Friday, ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor said the ruling is a win for effective democracy.

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