Yakima City Council elections would be overhauled to ensure the representation of Latino residents if a lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union holds up in federal court, those behind the lawsuit promised Wednesday.
Attorneys for the ACLU and two Yakima residents named as lead plaintiffs held a news conference to publicize the lawsuit, which is aimed at overturning the city's at-large and district hybrid system. That system, they argue, violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting the Latino vote.
"Although Latinos make up 41 percent of the population in Yakima and a majority of the voters in some neighborhoods of the city, we are not able to elect the candidates that we choose," said Rogelio Montes, a former City Council candidate and plaintiff in the lawsuit, in a prepared statement.
The lawsuit argues there is enough evidence to show Latinos vote consistently as a bloc in city elections, and that the candidates of their choosing -- regardless of race -- consistently lose.
"Under the current system, Latino candidates who win the support of their own district cannot get elected because they then need to be supported citywide," said Mateo Arteaga, the second plaintiff in the suit and director of educational outreach services for Central Washington University, in a prepared statement.
The complaint, filed in the federal Eastern District Court of Washington, requests the city implement an elections system that would comply with the law if the court finds the city to be in violation of Section 2 of theVoting Rights Act.
The lawsuit does not demand the city strictly adopt district-only voting, but it's the system voting rights advocates following city of Yakima elections have long called for.
Latinos now make up 33 percent of the city's voting-age population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but no Latino has ever been elected to the City Council. The only Latino to serve, local attorney Sonia Rodriguez-True, was appointed to the seat and lost a close election to current council member Dave Ettl in 2009.
Ettl said the current system works. Residents vote by district in the primary for four seats and at-large in the general election for all seven positions.
Latino candidates, Ettl said, have been few and far between, and have usually lacked the qualifications or been tied to liberal groups that assured their defeat in the mostly conservative city.
"They haven't tried," Ettl said. "It's not the system's job to make you feel like you can try."
Ettl and council member Bill Lover made a point of comparing Yakima's elections system to Sunnyside, which changed from an all at-large voting to a hybrid system in 2008. The change came after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded the city was likely in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
"It's the exact same system we're using," Lover said. "It's difficult for me to see where the suppression is of the vote."
But voting rights advocates who want to change Yakima's system say what works for Sunnyside doesn't necessarily work for Yakima. More than 80 percent of Sunnyside's population is Latino compared to 41 percent for Yakima, a sizeable portion but not large enough to break through under the limits imposed by the current system, they say.
The city has 30 days to respond to the complaint or move to dismiss it. City spokesman Randy Beehler said the city manager and attorney had not yet received a copy and had no comment.
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