YAKIMA — Mateo Arteaga has closely watched the demographics change in Yakima since he moved here in 1988. A longtime educator, Arteaga visits kindergarten classes where smiling Hispanic faces dominate the room.
Hispanics now make up more than a third of Yakima’s population, as farm workers travel to central Washington’s fruit bowl to work in agriculture and those who have come before them settle here to raise families.
But Arteaga says those same faces grow up to find they have no voice in the community and a lack of representation: Parks and libraries aren’t built on the city’s east side, which is predominantly Hispanic, and educational opportunities are fewer.
Arteaga joined Rogelio Montes, a student at Yakima Valley Community College, and the American Civil Liberties Union in filing suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court to change the city’s system for City Council elections in hopes of improving the odds for minority-supported candidates.
“Our kids need a place to be playing and to be a part of the community,” said Arteaga, a Central Washington University administrator who oversees an outreach program for disadvantaged students. “It’s about giving everybody an opportunity to have their voices be heard and their votes count.”
A city representative did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday.
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 invites court challenges to an election system that prevents protected minorities from meaningfully influencing election outcomes.
The case marks the first of its kind in Washington state, but the ACLU has successfully challenged at-large voting systems in other communities.
Forty-one percent of Yakima’s more than 91,000 residents are Hispanic, but the city has never elected a Hispanic member to its at-large city council.
Yakima has three council members who represent districts and four at-large members, but the district candidates are only selected in the primary election. Every resident casts votes for each council seat in the general election.
Civil rights advocates contend the method dilutes the Latino vote and blocks minority representation, and the ACLU has been pushing the city to change its system since 2010.
Last year, council members refused to put an initiative on a special ballot requiring that all seven members represent a specific district, and Yakima voters defeated an initiative to change the system in last year’s primary.
“The concerns of the Latino community are not being effectively represented in the City Council,” said La Rond Baker, an ACLU attorney. “We realized the City Council wasn’t going to come to the table in any meaningful way, so we filed today.”
Baker also said the lawsuit isn’t about getting minority candidates onto the council, but about ensuring the candidates that minorities support have a fair shot in an election.
Yakima isn’t the first community in Eastern Washington, where the Hispanic community has grown significantly in recent years, to have its voting system come under review.
In 2008, after the Justice Department intervened, the city of Sunnyside changed its entirely at-large City Council elections to a partially districted system that is similar to the system in Yakima.
“I would hope that every City Council would want to have a system that complied with the Voting Rights Act,” Baker said. “When we win, it may require some of them to make alterations to their own systems.”
Earlier this year, an annual survey of Eastern Washington’s Latino population by Whitman College students recommended that the state pass a Voting Rights Act to facilitate minority representation in local communities.
The study found that Latinos comprised nearly 22 percent of the population in 10 Eastern Washington counties between 1983 and 2011, but have been elected to only 2.7 percent of their city council and school district seats during that time.
A legislative bill that would have made it easier for minorities to get elected in local communities passed out of committee but failed to come up for a vote on the House floor in the last session.
Modeled on the decade-old California Voting Rights Act, it would have encouraged court challenges to cities, counties and school districts to push them to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.