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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trial date set in voting rights lawsuit against Yakima County over Latino signatures

By Jasper Kenzo Sundeen Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – A federal voting rights lawsuit against Yakima County is scheduled to go to trial in February .

A group of community organizations and Latino voters sued Yakima, Benton and Chelan counties in 2021 over their process of verifying signatures on ballots. The plaintiffs allege Latino voters disproportionately had their ballots rejected due to signature mismatches, disenfranchising Latino voters and violating the Voting Rights Act.

All three counties denied the allegations. Benton and Chelan county officials reached a settlement agreement earlier this month.

The lawsuit centers around the process of verifying voters’ mail-in ballots using their signature. Washington’s elections have been conducted via mail since 2013. Voters select candidates, sign their ballots and mail them to county auditors, who count them up.

Officials verify ballots by comparing the signatures on the ballot to the signature a voter used when they registered. If elections staff decide the signatures do not match based on the name, details in letters, style, proportions and irregularities, they contact the voter. The voter must cure, or resolve, the signature issue in person or through mail before the election is certified.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Latino voters in Benton, Chelan and Yakima counties who had their ballots rejected due to signature mismatches, as well as two community organizations, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Latino Community Fund (LCF), that routinely work with and advocate for Latino voters in central Washington.

LCF has offices in Yakima and has helped organize get out the vote events to encourage Yakima Valley voters.

The lawsuit named the canvassing board – officials who oversee elections – as the defendants in the lawsuit. In Yakima County, the canvassing board was County Auditor Charles Ross, then-County Commissioner Ron Anderson and County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic.

The lawsuit is titled Reyes v. Chilton, naming Chelan County Latino voter Jesse Reyes and Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton.

The plaintiffs argued that Latino voters are three to 10 times more likely to have their ballots rejected due to signature mismatches in Benton, Chelan and Yakima counties. The lawsuit covers election activity from 2016 to 2020.

In the 2016 general election, the plaintiffs alleged that Latino voters in Yakima County were 10 times more likely to have their ballots rejected because of mismatched signatures. In 2019 and 2020 general and primary elections, Yakima County Latinos were 3.8 times more likely, the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit alleges that perceptions of a voter’s race connected to their surname can result in discrimination, adding that county canvassing review boards do not receive any particular training on verifying signatures or diversity, equity and inclusion.

Latino voters are less likely to cure flagged ballots due to socioeconomic obstacles, the plaintiffs said, and those who have a ballot rejected are three times less likely to turn out and vote in the next election. That can lead to longer-term disenfranchisement of Latino voters, the lawsuit said.

The defendants denied allegations that the signature match policy is racially discriminatory or that ballots were rejected because of the perceived race of voters.

The defendants admitted that signature review training is not mandated for the canvassing board, but said elections staff who review signatures are trained.

The plaintiffs asked for trainings, published standards and expert-approved guides for signature matching. They also called for better bilingual outreach and processes for fixing signatures, as well as a formal complaint process and more public access to data and canvassing board meetings.

While Benton and Chelan continued to deny the allegations in their settlement with the plaintiffs, they agreed to have signature verification and cultural competency training every two years for county election staff, according to the settlement documents.

The two counties will also include information on how to fix mismatched signatures on its ballots and on its websites, including directions in Spanish. Chelan and Benton counties will pay $150,000 to the plaintiffs to cover their attorney fees.

Yakima County officials are the only ones left named in the lawsuit, which is set for trial on Feb. 5 in U.S. District Court in Richland.