On Friday, the sleepiest of news days, a federal Judge named Thomas O. Rice issued a sweeping summary judgment, presaging a more representative political landscape in Yakima. It’s a case study in democracy, in the occasional need for litigation to prod the better angels, and in the weight of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.
It also signals a sea change in the business-as-usual, pay-no-attention-to-the-changing demographics of Northwest politics.
“Don’t we want communities to have representation from people who live in that community?” said Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, author and principal sponsor of the Washington Voting Rights Act. “Intentional, historic or even inadvertent gerrymandering is counter to the principles of our democracy. It’s too bad the city of Yakima had to be sued to make their voting system more inclusive.”
Friday’s judgment means that the city and the American Civil Liberties Union will bypass legal foot dragging and immediately weigh remedies, agreeing to a tractable solution consistent with Rice’s decision — likely district elections.
The case is straightforward, that Yakima’s “at-large voting system deprives Latinos of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the Yakima City Council.” The plaintiffs held up a mirror to illustrate the obvious, that no Latino has ever been elected to the city council in the 37-year history of the current system — “despite the fact that Latinos account for approximately one-third of the city’s voting-age population and approximately one-quarter of its citizen voting-age population.”
Judge Rice determined that there was no meaningful counterargument concerning the “dilutive” effect of the city’s election system on Latino votes. The summary judgment means that current city council elections are not “equally open to participation” by members of the Latino minority.
As Moscoso notes, the WVRA will make it easier and less expensive to correct cases of polarized voting. “Once data is presented demonstrating that elections are denying a protected class an equal opportunity to elect candidates of its choice, the jurisdiction can remediate the problem as directed by the court or meet with plaintiffs to design a more appropriate voting system,” Moscoso said. “Most importantly, parties need not go to court for a settlement unless they disagree on a mediated solution.”
In the next legislative session, lawmakers need to make passage of the Washington Voting Rights Act a priority. If the arc of the moral universe is long, it still bends toward justice — and democracy.