Yakima, Washington: From Vote Dilution to Fair Representation?

Posted by Drew Spencer Penrose on March 23, 2015
A federal district court recently ordered that Yakima, Washington elect its city council from seven single-winner districts. FairVote had asked that the court consider fair representation voting, but the judge unfortunately adopted a highly formalistic analysis and ordered the more limited district remedy. But there may still be a chance for fair voting in Washington in future cases or even by the adoption of a Washington Voting Rights Act.

The city of Yakima violated the Voting Rights Act by electing its city council at-large by "numbered posts," a winner-take-all system that allows the same majority group to elect every seat. That election method was utterly unfair to Yakima's significant Latino population, and it showed. About 23% of Yakima's eligible voters were Latino, and several strong Latino candidates had run for the seven-seat city council, but even well-qualified Latino candidates consistently lost their races, in one case, even when the candidate's sole opposition had dropped out of the race. As the district court easily ruled, Yakima's voters were clearly polarized by ethnicity.

The Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU asked that the city be divided into seven districts, so that one district could encircle the most heavily Latino part of town and another contain a significant Latino population who could influence its choice of representative. Without a doubt, that would help to diversify the Yakima city council and would be good for Latino voters.

However, under the seven-district plan, almost 80% of Yakima's Latino citizen voting-age population would live outside of the one majority-minority district, and almost 60% would live outside of either the majority-Latino or the "influence" district. That means that most Latino voters in Yakima would still have no actual representation on the Yakima city council. There would be one or possibly two Latino members elected, but those members would not be responsive to voters outside of their own districts. It also means that no elected official would represent more than one-seventh of the city; Yakima does not have a separately elected mayor.

FairVote proposed an alternative that we believe would be better: the use of fair representation voting citywide for three seats. The continued use of a mixed system would mean that the city would have three elected officials with direct responsibility for the entire city. With four seats still elected in districts, one majority-minority district could still be drawn, ensuring that Latino communities would be represented. Additionally, however, the entire Latino population of Yakima could help elect one of the three at-large positions. That's because although three positions would be elected, each voter would have one vote.

The "single vote" system means that each candidate must be elected by a separate group of voters, rather than one group of voters being able to elect all three. FairVote forcefully argued that fair representation voting is a legal remedy for Voting Rights Act lawsuits, that it is an effective option for racial minority communities, that it empowers all voters, and that it works in appropriate conditions like those in Yakima. With three seats elected by the single vote method, any candidate winning more than 25% of the vote would be guaranteed election. That's because it would be mathematically impossible for three other candidates to also get more than 25% of the vote. However, the effective threshold - the percent of the vote candidates realistically need to come in third - would be much lower than 25%. For example, when Calera, Alabama elected its city council with the single vote method in 2012, an African American candidate was elected by coming in third place with only 13% of the vote (in a six-seat race).

As mentioned before, about 23% of Yakima's eligible voters are Latino, which puts them above the effective threshold for election in one of the at-large seats. That means that under FairVote's plan, every Latino voter would have the ability to elect a candidate of choice.

However, the court applied a highly formalistic analysis that relied on the 25% guaranteed threshold rather than the much more realistic effective threshold. Consequently, he concluded that the single vote system was inadequate for Latino voters in Yakima. FairVote asked the court to reconsider, noting both that candidates have come in second with less than 25% in Yakima's primary elections and that Latino candidates have attracted more than 25% of the vote in at-large elections in Yakima. Unfortunately, the court dispensed with those arguments with very little analysis.

Notwithstanding the result for Yakima itself, this case does present a way forward in Washington. First, FairVote has begun to research what it takes to win in single vote elections, so that in the future, we can powerfully make the case that a group above a realistic effective threshold can win election. 

Second, this case led to an interesting partnership with city officials in Yakima itself. Yakima wanted to retain some at-large seats, and so it actually embraced fair representation voting as a remedy, as fair voting would allow it to both retain at-large seats and resolve the vote dilution claim. In fact, the city council voted unanimously in support of using the single vote method. This may lead to more cities in Washington (and elsewhere) asking for fair representation voting in future cases.

Finally, this case has increased interest in Washington adopting its own State Voting Rights Act. Already, a state representative has editorialized in the Yakima Herald-Republic in favor of the proposal. The California Voting Rights Act has already paved the way for fair representation voting in cities like Santa Clarita. The Washington Voting Rights Act could do the same for Washington.

To read more about fair voting and the Voting Rights Act, read FairVote's booklet for practitioners, our Policy Perspective on fair voting and racial minority communities, and see critical excerpts from our brief filed in Yakima. Also, take a look at FairVote's new page listing each of the over 100 local jurisdictions that elect some or all of their legislative offices by fair representation voting.
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