Modified At-Large Voting for Yakima City Council

February 3, 2021

The City of Yakima’s elections for city council are in receivership with the federal government. The current system is not meeting the needs of voters and residents. Soon, new city council districts will be drawn. This pamphlet proposes petitioning the Court, which imposed Yakima’s current voting system, to change to a modified at-large / district hybrid system.


In 2014, US District Court Judge Thomas Rice issued a summary ruling (Montes v. Yakima), finding the City of Yakima’s election system in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The court agreed with plaintiffs that Latinos could not elect a candidate of choice under the City’s at-large, winner-take-all system.

Yakima had to remedy legal problems with its voting system. An exclusive district mandate is not in the federal VRA, so the city looked for at-large solutions, established in case law, to better fit circumstances.

Considering Yakima has no independently elected mayor, with exclusive districts, there would be no city-wide representation whatsoever. With this concern in mind, the City offered a remedy of a hybrid district / at-large system.

For Yakima's seven-seat council, the proposal featured five single-member districts. These districts to include two majority-minority districts. The remaining two seats on the council are elected with a modified at-large arrangement.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The part of the remedy instating a modified at-large system is identical to how primaries are currently run in our state. Here is the difference; it is within one ballot where the top-two vote getters win the election. There is no primary with this kind of election.

Each voter gets one vote towards electing two seats. After ballots are counted, the first and second place vote getters are elected.

While this type of voting may sound new to some, more than 100 jurisdictions in the United States use similar systems—many as a remedy to VRA cases. For example, a federal court recently allowed the Ferguson, Missouri school board to choose a modified at-large voting system to remedy their VRA violation and the plaintiffs and ACLU backed the remedy.

But in Yakima, the plaintiffs and ACLU opposed the city’s proposal by citing state law not accommodating modified at-large. Judge Rice sided with plaintiffs on this point and imposed an exclusive seven-district voting policy. The Court should have granted the hybrid district / modified at-large remedy. Once liability for racial minority vote dilution has been established, the defendant jurisdiction has first choice of remedy. It is a reversible error for a court to fail to approve the defendant’s choice of remedy as long its proposal actually does remedy the vote dilution.

Yakima's leaders were keen to problems with exclusive districts. Nevertheless, the City's pleas were ignored; with consequences soon appearing.

SEVEN EXCLUSIVE DISTRICTS ARE NOT WORKING FOR YAKIMA

The 2015 elections were historically good ones for Latino candidates, electing three with the plaintiff-drawn district maps—although there were wide disparities in voter participation.

Those turnout disparities continued in 2017. In the general election, the majority-minority District 2 produced 807 voters—while District 6, drawn for whites, had a 3,545 voter turnout.

Also in 2017, the number of ethnic Latinos elected to office dropped. Even though District 2 was drawn specifically for Latino voters, 71 percent of the district’s voters chose a white, non-Spanish speaking candidate Jason White over Latino Pablo Gonzalez. This after the incumbent Latina finished third in the August primary that had even lower turnout.

White’s overwhelming win challenges certain expectations and assumptions regarding voting rights, racial policies and who is expected to win and lose elections.

The failure of assumptions with the 2014 remedy are clear. In a 2019 Crosscut article on voting changes in Yakima, Mike Faulk wrote,

“Now, five years after moving from citywide to district voting ushered historic change for Yakima, and even before the November general election, it's certain that the 2020 city council will be much less diverse. After the August primaries, only one Latino candidate, political newcomer Eliana Macias, currently stands a chance of serving on the council in 2020.”

There are more consequences bore by every one of the City’s voters regarding accountability with their city council: Yakima voters can now only vote for one seat on their council—once every four years. Yakimanians used to cast ballots every two years; among either four or three seats up for election, respectively.

The seven exclusive districts imposed on Yakima come at a high cost to voter efficacy with their government — while still not electing Latinos as promised.

THE HYBRID PLAN IS BETTER

A hybrid district / modified at-large remedy guarantees all Yakima voters will have a say on electing three of seven seats with their council.

Disparities in voter turnout between certain districts will also ease with five larger, single-member districts. The inclusion of modified at-large voting completely solves the problem of voter turnout disparity among various districts.

The hybrid plan also speaks to proponents for a strong mayor, while preserving the city manager arrangement. The concept of strong mayor seeks city-wide representation — in a jurisdiction where it is completley lacking. Modified at-large offers two individuals on the council to serve city-wide.

Modified at-large voting is also more dynamic than locking voters into single member-districts for 10 years — better over time accommodating inevitable demographic changes.

The threshold for election with modified at-large is just over one-third of the total vote. If not winning first in vote totals, Latino candidates are well positioned to win second place. Results of pre-Montes elections prove this. There is no reason why this should change as we move into the '20s.

NO PRIMARY?

The five districts in the plan can still have primary elections where the top-two advance to a general election.

Voting for the two modified at-large seats will be limited to the November general election — where the top-two vote getters are elected.

This version of modified at-large voting is also known as Limited Voting, and, in more political science jargon, as the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV). This voting plan requires a multi-member district (or at-large council) where the voter must cast fewer votes than there are seats at stake. Such a system acts to minimize the potential for a majority bloc to "sweep" all of the council positions at stake in a contest.

SNTV has been measured through the lens of such concepts as Decision-Theoretic Analysis. Professor Gary W. Cox, an expert on SNTV, has studied the results of this system’s use in Japan (1994). Cox explains,

“If voters are exposed to lots of free information (e.g., frequently published polls) that reveals some candidates to be clearly trailing the others and if this information seeps out to a large proportion of the instrumental electorate, then one expects that trailing candidates will be left with not much more than their non-instrumental support.”

In other words; most voters, who rationally seek value with their ballot, abandon who they perceive as marginal candidates. Anyone who observes Washington’s primary elections already knows this; so there is no need to cite more academics. Still not convinced? Look at how third-parties fare on our multi-candidate presidential ballots! With our primaries, voters in Washington tend to send the two strongest candidates to the general. Modified at-large should produce the same, the only difference is — the top two candidates are elected.

SNTV has been used in local races with partisan systems to fill at-large council seats in New York City, Philadelphia, and West Hartford, Connecticut. SNTV was used in non-partisan Rome, New York and in Hartford, Connecticut, under previous charters. It is currently in use in some Connecticut cities and towns, and in some Pennsylvania counties. Over fifty years of VRA case law and judicial scrutiny confirm modified at-large as a constitutionally protected form of voting.

CONCLUSION

State law has recently changed with the passing of the Washington Voting Rights Act; which does not limit remedies to single-member districts.

For 2021, Yakima will need to draw new council districts. The 2020 census data has yet to arrive. Considering change in state law, now is the time to petition Judge Rice to allow a modified at-large / district hybrid system for the City’s new council maps. There are too many problems with the current system to waste this window of time.

Micah Cawley


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RELATED LINKS & NEWS (April 4, 2021)

Yakima Valley Latinos getting a voice, with court’s help. MARIA L. LA GANGA Los Angeles Times (September 25, 2014)

An alternative for Yakima to comply with the Voting Rights Act without dividing the city. MICAH CAWLEY Seattle Times (March 31, 2015)

Four years after historic wins for Latino politicians, the Yakima City Council is getting less diverse. MIKE FAULK Crosscut (October 22, 2019)

Why Conservatives Should Back State Voting Rights Acts. CHRISTOPHER S. ELMENDORF City Journal (October 23, 2020)

Debate in Yakima over push to create modified at-large city council positions. VICTOR PARK KIMA News (April 2, 2021)

REFERENCES

Cox, Gary W. “Strategic Voting Equilibria Under the Single Nontransferable Vote.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 88, no. 3, 1994, pp. 608–621.