In Our View: Yakima Vote Ruling Ripples

Federal Court's judgment to alter process may affect local elections

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Two-plus centuries after the founding of the grand experiment that is the United States, a court ruling regarding elections in Yakima serves as a case study on the evolution of representative democracy and could have an impact on Vancouver.

Judge Thomas O. Rice of the federal court in Seattle issued a summary judgment against the manner in which Yakima conducts elections for its city council, saying the system violates Section 2 of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Rice ruled that the city disenfranchised minority Latino voters, writing that, “In the final analysis, there is only one rational conclusion to be drawn … that the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino majority.”

The issue: The fields for four city council seats are narrowed by in-district voting during the primary, but all seven council members are selected by a citywide vote in the general election. The result: Yakima, where 41 percent of residents are Hispanic, has never had a Latino elected to the city council. The solution: Rice ordered the city to institute a system in which councilors are elected by district, giving a voice to voters in heavily Hispanic sections of the city.

Kathleen Taylor, executive director for American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said: “The Latino community in Yakima now will have a chance for their interests to be represented on the City Council. Latino voters will be able to elect a candidate of their choice and to have more of a say in how city services are distributed.”

State Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, added: “Don’t we want communities to have representation from people who live in that community? Intentional, historic or even inadvertent gerrymandering is counter to the principles of our democracy.”

That is where the issue could alter Vancouver’s city government. All six members of the city council — in addition to the mayor, who is a voting member of the council — are elected in citywide at-large votes. Vancouver is not as ethnically diverse as Yakima, but Rice’s ruling could have a long reach if it stands.

The ruling — and questions of inclusion and access to the process — comes at what could be a turning point for American democracy. Nationally, the issue of gerrymandering — the drawing of legislative districts for the benefit of a particular political party — is an ongoing issue. So is a series of state laws requiring voters to present a state-issued ID in order to cast a ballot; critics argue that such laws are designed to suppress the vote of certain demographic groups, while supporters say the laws are designed to prevent illegal immigrants from voting.

But in the end, the ruling in the recent case calls to mind the phrase “tyranny of the majority,” which came to prominence in the 1830s when French author Alexis de Tocqueville used it to describe the American political system. Yakima’s process for selecting its city council allowed for the white majority to maintain a stranglehold on city government at the expense of a large Latino minority. As the ACLU’s Taylor said, “All voices of the community need to be represented in local government — that is what democracy is all about.”

Indeed it is, whether the issue involves a large minority or a small one; whether it involves a city government or a state representative’s seat. After 200-plus years, our notion of democracy continues to evolve, with the emphasis rightly being upon a more inclusive system. That emphasis is about to change the nature of Yakima, and its impact on Vancouver might be just as great.