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Washington State Latinos Fight to Make Their Votes Matter

Four Yakima residents say they will sue if the county commission doesn't change the way its members are elected. (Christopher Boswell/Adobe Stock)
Four Yakima residents say they will sue if the county commission doesn't change the way its members are elected. (Christopher Boswell/Adobe Stock)
May 27, 2020

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Latinos in a Washington state community are fighting for fairness in elections.

In Yakima County, members of the county commission have remained white even as the Latino population has soared. Robin Engle, communications and development director for the immigrant rights group OneAmerica, said it's allowing the board to ignore the concerns of the Latino community.

"The very slight white majority in Yakima County is functionally able to win each of those three seats in virtually every election cycle," she said. "Only one, I believe, Latina candidate has ever won to serve a seat in the Yakima County Commission."

Commissioners are elected countywide. Critics of the current system would like to see Yakima County implement ranked-choice voting, Engle said. OneAmerica and four Latino voters have said they'll sue the county if elections aren't changed by July 13. Commission members have asked for an extension. They have said they're concerned about these issues and want to work collaboratively with residents to fix them.

Regelio Montes, a community activist in Yakima who signed the letter to the county commission, said the Latino community feels ignored, and not only because of the voting system. Commission meetings were changed to mornings, when many people are at work, and voting material and hearings aren't translated into Spanish. Montes said he feels the community has been discouraged from voting.

"We want someone that will represent everyone and focus on the whole county, and to take us as part of the community, too," he said.

If the county doesn't change its elections voluntarily, Engle said, OneAmerica will challenge it under the state's Washington Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 2018.

"It's a tool where voters can challenge their local municipality's election system if they feel their vote is being suppressed," she said, "and that challenge can have teeth."

Engle said her group is researching other localities where unfair election systems might also be challenged under the Washington Voting Rights Act.

The letter to the Yakima County Commission is online at weareoneamerica.org, and the text of the Washington Voting Rights Act is at crosscut.com.

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Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA