This is a summary of federal Voting Rights Act actions in our state and how proportional representation was considered in these cases. The timeline starts with the City of Yakima, touches on Yakima County then Pasco. The conclusion explains how the State Redistricting Commission is rendered obsolete due to voting rights litigation.
CITY OF YAKIMA
In 2014, US District Court Judge Thomas Rice issued a summary ruling (Montes v. Yakima), finding the City of Yakima’s election system in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The court agreed with plaintiffs that Latinos could not elect a candidate of choice under the City’s at-large, winner-take-all system.
An exclusive district mandate is not in the federal VRA, so the city looked for at-large solutions, established in case law, to better fit circumstances. Considering Yakima has no independently elected mayor, with exclusive districts, there would be no city-wide representation whatsoever. With this concern in mind, the City offered a remedy of a hybrid district / at-large system; with the latter featuring proportional represeantation through Top 2 Pro.
For Yakima's seven-seat council, the proposal featured five single-member districts. These districts to include two majority-minority districts. The remaining two seats on the council are elected with proportional representation.
While this type of voting may sound new to some, more than 100 jurisdictions in the United States use similar systems—many as a remedy to VRA cases. For example, a federal court recently allowed the Ferguson, Missouri school board to choose proportional representation to remedy their VRA violation and the plaintiffs and ACLU backed the remedy.
But in Yakima, the plaintiffs and ACLU opposed the city’s proposal by citing state law not accommodating modified at-large. Judge Rice sided with plaintiffs on this point and imposed an exclusive seven-district voting policy. The Court should have granted the hybrid district / modified at-large remedy. Once liability for racial minority vote dilution has been established, the defendant jurisdiction has first choice of remedy. It is a reversible error for a court to fail to approve the defendant’s choice of remedy as long its proposal actually does remedy the vote dilution.
Yakima's leaders were keen to problems with exclusive districts. Nevertheless, the City's pleas were ignored; with consequences soon appearing.
The 2015 elections were historically good ones for Latino candidates, electing three with the plaintiff-drawn district maps; although there were wide disparities in voter participation.
Those turnout disparities continued in 2017. In the general election, the majority-minority District 2 produced 807 voters — while District 6, drawn for whites, had a 3,545 voter turnout.
Also in 2017, the number of ethnic Latinos elected to office dropped. Even though District 2 was drawn specifically for Latino voters, 71 percent of the district’s voters chose a white, non-Spanish speaking candidate Jason White over Latino Pablo Gonzalez. This after the incumbent Latina finished third in the August primary that had even lower turnout.
White’s overwhelming win challenges certain expectations and assumptions regarding voting rights, identity politics and who is expected to win and lose elections.
With the November 2021 Yakima City Council election, District 2, drawn for Latinos, produced 571 votes. While District 6, drawn for whites, produced 4,666 votes.
This eye-popping disparity is not the result of some paranoid voting conspiracy theory du jour. Rather, the consequences of exclusive districting are plain-as-day. Gerrymander watchers are familiar with the terms “packing” and “cracking.” The former refers to packing as many voters into a district as possible, resulting in a dilution of voting power.
There are more consequences bore by every one of the City’s voters regarding accountability with their city council: Yakima voters can now only vote for one seat on their council, once every four years. Yakimanians used to cast ballots every two years; among either four or three seats up for election, respectively.
Proportional Representation is Better
A hybrid district / Top 2 Pro remedy guarantees all Yakima voters will have a say on electing three of seven seats with their council.
Disparities in voter turnout between certain districts will also ease with five larger, single-member districts.
The hybrid plan also speaks to proponents for a strong mayor for Yakima, while preserving the city manager arrangement. The concept of strong mayor seeks city-wide representation — in a jurisdiction where it is completley lacking. Top 2 Pro produces two individuals on the council serving city-wide.
Proportional representation is also more dynamic than locking voters into single member-districts for 10 years — better over time accommodating inevitable demographic changes.
The threshold for election with proportional representation is just over one-third of the total vote. If not winning first in vote totals, Latino candidates are well positioned to win second place. Evidence in the Montes case proves this.
The City of Pasco was well aware of what occured in the City of Yakima — the legal headaches and whopping attorney fees paid to plaintiff's lawyers in that case made clear a consent decree was necessary. Pasco considered a hybrid system of four districts and three at-large seats elected through proportional ranked choice voting. However, the city's attorney, aware of the same state law that stymied City of Yakima, advised against this remedy. On January 27, 2017, against plaintiff's objections, Federal Judge Lonny Suko agreed with Pasco that the City’s proposed plan of a six district / one seat at-large Council election system met the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. This way, the Pasco city council provides some city-wide representation, as voters get two votes to influence how two seats are elected on their council.
YAKIMA COUNTY COMMISSION
In 2021, Yakima County agreed to a consent decree after a voting rights action was brought forth. In this case, plaintiffs proposed proportional represenatation. The commissioners adamantly opposed proportional ranked choice voting and even issued a press release boasting they were somehow protecting the county (and state!). They also made ridiculous claims such as, "Voters in Yakima County should not be forced to cast a vote for anyone who is not their first choice." — which is nonsense when you consider the current voting system in our state where the voter many times chooses their second choice candidate in the general election*.
The Yakima commissioners seem unaware of elections in their own county. Lacking the dynamics of proportional representation, voters in the City of Yakima are packed into districts because of racial profiles. The voter turnout disparities in the City of Yakima are obvious, nevertheless, Yakima County commissioners convinced themselves proportional representation would somehow disenfranshise people.
Yakima County's statement for rejecting proportional representation makes bad assumptions about ranked choice voting.
STATE REDISTRICTING COMMISSION FAILED EXPECTATIONS
Hopes were high among special interest and identity politics groups for the 2021 state redistricting commission to produce minority majority districts in Eastern Washington. Considering the legal challenges since 2014, this was a realistic goal. And it's just right to eliminate barriers to representation. Nevertheless, the 2022 election was disappointing to many conducting social justice advocacy.
No Democrats were elected in the Yakima Valley or Tri-Cities.
In January of 2022, the University of California Los Angeles Voting Rights Project, the Campaign Legal Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the State of Washington claiming, "The Washington State Redistricting Commission intentionally selected redistricting plans for Washington’s state legislative districts that dilute Hispanic and/or Latino voters’ ability to elect candidates of choice."
The litigation states, "The Commission did so by configuring District 15, which includes parts of the Yakima Valley and Pasco, to be a façade of a Latino opportunity district" (Palmer et al v. Hobbs et al). This could be, however, for the sake of brevity, and in keeping within the scope of this site, let's look at the Top 2 Pro map — which accomplishes creating greater access to representation, but without the legal hassles.
The Top 2 Pro map shows the 14th and 8th LDs as purple / bi-partisan districts. Unlike the commission map, our map (based on 2022 election results) produces two seats to voters who prefer Democrats; one in the Yakima valley and the other in Tri-Cities. This is not configuring demographics on a map and expecting outcomes. Rather, shared representation is the result of lowering the threshold for election to 33.33 percent so the top two vote getters are elected.
CONCLUSIONThe Hobbs plaintiffs sideline our redistricting commission by demanding a court, "Preliminarily and permanently enjoin Defendants from administering, enforcing, preparing for, or in any way permitting the nomination or election of members of the Washington State Legislature from the illegal state legislative districts under the Washington State Redistricting Commission’s Approved Final State Legislative Map." Litigation was expected and hung over the commission proceedings.
Top 2 Pro allows voters — no matter what they look like, or what language they speak, or what their own needs and values are — decide who best represents them. Proportional representation is a proven remedy for Voting Rights actions. Proportional representation solves the problem of insider map makers packing certain voters in a district. Top 2 Pro provides equal opportunities for representaiton without changing the 2021 state legislative map.
* Look at the 2020 general election ballot for governor. The hapless Loren Culp's appearance on the general election ballot was a major derailment of our state's voting system resulting Jay Inslee's shoo-in for reelection. Culp won 433,238 in the primary election, coming in second place among a crowded field of candidates, to qualify for the general — where he then garnerd 1,749,066 votes. That's 1,315,828 primary voters who made Culp their second choice on the general election ballot. Who forced these voters to make Culp their second choice in the general election; when there were also 1,938 write-in votes counted?
RELATED LINKS & NEWS
Educational resource on proportional representation. PR VOTING
Yakima Valley Latinos getting a voice, with court’s help. MARIA L. LA GANGA Los Angeles Times (September 25, 2014)
An alternative for Yakima to comply with the Voting Rights Act without dividing the city. MICAH CAWLEY Seattle Times (March 31, 2015)
Four years after historic wins for Latino politicians, the Yakima City Council is getting less diverse. MIKE FAULK Crosscut (October 22, 2019)
Why Conservatives Should Back State Voting Rights Acts. CHRISTOPHER S. ELMENDORF City Journal (October 23, 2020)
Debate in Yakima over push to create modified at-large city council positions. VICTOR PARK KIMA News (April 2, 2021)
Franklin County: Voting-rights battle in Washington state raises allegations of diluting Latino votes. NINA SHAPIRO Seattle Times (May 16, 2021)
Yakima County County Commission press release. (September 3, 2021)
Local Option for Washington Krist Novoselić: Ranked choice voting improves representation for all The Spokesman-Review (February 9, 2022)
Yakima Valley Redistricting After redistricting rancor, Republicans maintain hold on Yakima Valley legislative districts KATE SMITH Yakima Herald-Republic (November 13, 2022)
WA high court upholds state Voting Rights Act. Now, a county must change its elections A Washington Supreme Court ruling was hailed this week as a big win for voting rights across the country. Cameron Probert Seattle Times / Tri CIty Herald (June 17, 2023)
Palmer v. Hobbs: On January 19, 2022, a group of Washington voters filed a federal lawsuit against Washington's Secretary of State, House Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader challenging the Washington State Redistricting Commission's approved legislative redistricting plan as violating the federal Voting Rights Act. On August 10, 2023, the district court ruled in favor of plaintiffs and ordered the redistricting commission to reform and cure the Sec. 2 violation the court found to exist in the Commission's adopted legislative plan.The American Redistricting Project CASE DOCKET (August 31, 2023)