Latino Voters Are Making History in Yakima, Washington

10/28/2015 04:09 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016

Around the nation, voting rights for people of color are under attack. But in central Washington, an historic advance for Latino voters is taking place in the wake of a legal victory by the ACLU.

In the City of Yakima, Latinos account for approximately one-third of the voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population. Yet, in 37 years, no Latino has ever been elected to the Yakima City Council. In the absence of Latino representation on the City Council, issues of interest to the Latino community in Yakima have been met with indifference.

Now things are changing in this agricultural community of 93,000. Five Latino City Council candidates are on the ballot in Yakima's November general election. Two of the five candidates are running in the same district, so that district is certain to have a Latino representative. However, it is possible that one, two or three other Latinos may also be elected.

This is the result of successful lawsuit brought in 2012 by the ACLU of Washington under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit contended that Yakima's at-large election system diluted the voting strength of Latinos and deprived them of the ability to elect candidates of their choice to the Yakima City Council.

In an at-large election system, all council members are elected by a majority of voters citywide. In practice, an at-large system can weaken the political power of particular groups, especially ethnic or racial groups concentrated in a specific part of town.

According to historical data presented in the lawsuit, Latino voters and white voters in Yakima both voted consistently as a bloc to elect candidates favored by their own communities. As a result, no Latino candidate has ever won an election to the City Council. For example, the sole Latina appointed to serve on the City Council, Sonia Rodriguez-True, could not retain her seat in the next at-large election, even with the advantage of incumbency. Similarly, in a Yakima School Board election, Graciela Villanueva lost the election to a white candidate who dropped out of the race and didn't campaign -- even though Villanueva put on a full campaign.

In 2014, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington found that under Yakima's at-large election system the non-Latino majority in Yakima "routinely suffocates" the voting preferences of the Latino minority. The Court subsequently adopted the ACLU-WA's proposal for a new system of seven single-member districts for City Council.

The changes created as a result of the lawsuit have been dramatic. In the August primary, eight Latino candidates ran for City Council seats -- a record number for Yakima. Voter turnout saw a boost, too. In the Yakima's primary election in August, people living in the city's two new, majority-Latino districts cast more ballots than they did in the 2013 primary, according to a study of voting records by the Yakima Herald-Republic. In one district, voting increased more than 45 percent, in the other voting increased by nearly 32 percent, according to the newspaper's analysis.

Now that Yakima's voting system has changed, voices of Latino voters will be heard. The ACLU of Washington is working with the Latino community in Yakima to hold voter registration drives and participate in weekly Spanish-language radio programming with the message that November's election will be different.

Generations of voter disenfranchisement won't be undone in a few months. But ACLU-WA Staff Attorney La Rond Baker said the response from Yakima's Latino community has been encouraging: "It shows citizens will participate in elections when they have a meaningful opportunity to do so."