Governor asks Yakima not to appeal elections order

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee is encouraging the Yakima City Council not to appeal a federal judge’s order to change local elections to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Last week, District Court Judge Thomas Rice ruled that Yakima’s city council elections violate the federal Voting Rights Act, finding that Latinos do not have full participation in city council races. In a letter sent Thursday, the governor asks the city council to move forward.

“I want to respectfully request that the Council send a clear message by voting to not appeal the Court’s decision and instead focus on implementing a plan to address this serious issue,” Inslee wrote.

Rice’s summary judgment came after the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued Yakima in 2012. The organization argues that the city’s at-large elections dilute the Latino vote and block representation despite the minority group making up a third of the city’s voting-age population. The lawsuit was part of a protracted effort to change the city’s election system.

“This is not just about Yakima,” Inslee wrote. “Numerous jurisdictions in our state suffer from a lack of diversity in political leadership and representation, at odds with our shared goal of a truly representative democracy. We all should be concerned when a city in our state is found to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

The Yakima Herald Republic reported Thursday afternoon that the city council met in an executive session with attorneys to discuss options. After the meeting, Yakima Mayor Micah Cawley said the city would comply with the judge’s order, drawing a stunned reaction from a small audience in attendance.

Cawley later clarified that the city is still leaving its options open.

“We’re not giving up any of our rights,” Cawley told the newspaper. “We’re going to comply with the judge’s order.”

In his judgment, Rice directed the city to work with the ACLU to come up with a remedial districting plan or each side can work on its own.

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 Latino, but the city has never elected a Latino member to its at-large city council. Yakima has four council members who represent districts and three 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.

Inslee’s letter to the Yakima City Council here.

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