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Exposed During COVID-19, Yakima Latinos Sue County Over Election System

COVID-19 cases have surged in Yakima County among farmworkers. (trongnguyen/Adobe Stock)
COVID-19 cases have surged in Yakima County among farmworkers. (trongnguyen/Adobe Stock)
July 14, 2020

YAKIMA, Wash. -- A group of Latino Washingtonians are suing Yakima County over its election structure. They say the county's reaction to the pandemic exposes why the system needs to be reformed.

Countywide voting gives the slight-white majority in the area control, with only one Latino ever serving on the commission two decades ago. Latino residents say the system disenfranchises them.

Bengie Aguilar is a plaintiff and former council member of Sunnyside, located in the Yakima valley.

"Can we call it a democracy if we know in advance that none of our preferred candidates will ultimately be elected?" Aguilar said. "Democracy means government of the people, by the people, for the people - all the people."

The Yakima County commission was given six months to work on changing the system or face a lawsuit under the Washington Voting Rights Act. The Board of Yakima County Commissioners did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in the past that they are willing to work with community members to change elections.

Roxana Norouzi is deputy director at OneAmerica, a plaintiff in this case. She said Yakima County commissioners aren't serving Latino residents' needs.

One example is their response to COVID-19, which has surged in the county. Norouzi said farm owners have failed to provide adequate protective gear, socially distanced lodging and hazard pay, but commissioners have not held them accountable.

"We need Latino representation to fix this problem and we need to elect people with lived immigrant experiences to represent our communities and values," Norouzi said.

Critics of the current system want to see the county implement ranked choice voting, or RCV. Aguilar said voters rank candidates, and if their favorite candidate doesn't have enough support to win the seat, their vote counts for their next favorite candidate.

"In other words, with RCV, your voice is heard," Aguilar said. "This makes it possible for us to create new, diverse and equitable leadership in our county."

She argued it would also save the taxpayers money, since primaries would be eliminated and the county would hold only one election.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA