ACLU sues Yakima for excluding Hispanics from city council

A lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the city of Yakima on behalf of Hispanic voters is working its way through a federal court.

The Seattle Times reported when the lawsuit was filed in 2012 that “Yakima has more than 91,000 residents, and its population is 41 percent Hispanic. No Latino has ever won an election for a seat on the city council.”

The reason is because Yakima’s 7-member city council is elected citywide, instead of by districts, which enables the white majority to outvote the Hispanic minority for every seat.  If the city were divided into districts, the council likely would still have a white majority, but barring abusive gerrymandering Hispanic voters could elect some Hispanic candidates to represent them on the council.

The legal basis for the lawsuit is the Equal Protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions.  Obviously there are some thorny legal and philosophical issues involved here, starting with the question of whether we should even be thinking of city council representation in ethnic identity terms.  It could be argued that a white council member’s views on city issues may coincide with a Hispanic voter’s views, in which case that council member is adequately representing that voter.  Even if ethnic identity is deemed material to representation, there’s a philosophical question of whether the majority ethnic group should be prevented from winning every election by restructuring elections to assure the minority ethnic group of winning some seats by creating some districts in which they are the majority.  Democracy, after all, is based on majority rule.

But I would respond to that argument by saying democracy isn’t necessarily that simple, and American democracy has always embraced the notion that electoral minorities are entitled to participate in government.  Completely shutting out people because they can’t muster an electoral majority isn’t part of our democratic tradition.  Rather, America’s founders adopted a system of “checks and balances” that contemplates accommodation and compromise between the majority and the minority.

Where, as in Yakima, a system of government exists by which the majority shuts out the minority, and the minority is given no say at all, that system is suspect and probably shouldn’t withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection legal principles that have been developed over time by our federal and state courtsRoger Rabbit icon.



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