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FILE — Yakima County Commissioners listen to a presentation regarding a countywide mental health tax intended to help the homeless Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, at Yakima City Hall in Yakima, Wash.

The Yakima Board of County Commissioners said Thursday that its legal staff is reviewing a complaint that at-large county elections violate the Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Latinos.

In a letter mailed Wednesday, four Latino voters, OneAmerica and the Campaign Legal Center said they’re prepared to sue the county, if necessary.

“The members of the Yakima Board of County Commissioners are concerned about the issues raised in the complaint and value the inclusion and participation of all residents of Yakima County in the electoral process,” commissioners said in a news release. “The Yakima Board of County Commissioners intends to work collaboratively with the residents named in the letter, as well as all residents of Yakima County.”

The Jan. 15 letter alleged that the county’s election system dilutes Latino votes, and so denies the Latino community an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The groups presented two alternatives: single-district ranked-choice voting, or countywide ranked-choice voting.

Only two areas in Washington State have considered ranked-choice elections. Vancouver’s charter allows for it, though it’s not currently used, and Pierce County implemented ranked-choice voting for two election cycles before voters asked to return to the previous system.

Those in favor of ranked-choice voting — including FairVote and the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting — say the system helps ensure that candidates with the most votes and broadest support win, levels the playing field for diverse candidates, and also leads to more amiable politics, as voters’ second preferences also are important.

Critics say ranked-choice voting can be difficult for voters to understand and there’s no evidence that the system results in more diverse legislative bodies.

Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross said his election staff met with FairVote about ranked-choice voting last year. But he said staffers have not yet delved deeply into the possibility, given the significant time and cost he said implementing the new system would require and that no city or county body has yet requested the change.

Ranked-choice voting

The gist of ranked-choice voting is that voters can rank candidates by preference on their ballots, and the candidate who wins a majority of first-preference votes wins the seat.

If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, as are the first-preference votes for that candidate, and the voters’ second choice candidate then gets counted toward candidate totals.

Nationwide, Maine has implemented ranked-choice voting at the state level. Nine other states, including California, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, have implemented ranked-choice voting at some level, according to FairVote, a nonprofit organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland, that promotes ranked-choice voting.

Robin Engle, a spokeswoman for OneAmerica, said the groups commissioned an analysis of county commission elections in Yakima County to determine the best possible alternatives.

The analysis was done by Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a Boston-based company led by Moon Duchin of Tufts University and Justin Solomon of MIT. The analysis determined as the best two alternatives:

  • A single-member district system with ranked choice voting would create three districts in Yakima County. There would be no primary election, and all candidates for a district seat would run in a single general election for the seat and be elected by voters in the district. The first candidate to receive 50% plus one vote would be elected.
  • A countywide election with multi-winner ranked choice voting would allow voters to mark their preferences for each commissioner. The first three candidates to surpass a vote threshold of 25% plus one vote would be elected.

Yakima was sued in 2012 by the American Civil Liberties Union-Washington over concerns that at-large elections for City Council positions diluted the Latino vote. A judge ruled in 2014 that the city’s elections system violated the Voting Rights Act, and a seven-district council resulted.

Ross said if asked to do so, the Yakima County Auditor’s office could redistrict the county fairly easily. But Engle said a district-specific system might not work here.

“We believe ranked choice voting is best for Yakima County because it gives voters the most voice,” Engle said. “Districts alone may not work, because Yakima has a history of multiple Latino candidates running for office.”

Engle said that under a primary system, the majority of voters in a majority-minority district could split their vote and see only white candidates advance to the general.

Countywide ranked choice voting would address that by removing the problem of vote-splitting, she said.

Other considerations

Engle said ranked-choice voting also would save the county money, as it would not need to re-district every 10 years after the Census.

Ross said that switching to a ranked-choice voting system would involve significant upfront costs, however. His office would need to purchase new equipment, train staff, and print and mail double the number of ballots.

A sheet he provided of Pierce County’s costs to switch to a ranked-choice voting election system showed implementation costs — including equipment purchases, extra ballot printing and mailing, staff training and voter education — topped $1.6 million.

“They have a lot more staff and resources than we do,” he said. “But ranked-choice voting also was poorly received by the voters, who used an initiative to quit doing it after two election cycles.”

Results from Pierce County surveys of more than 90,000 voters showed that 34% liked and understood ranked-choice voting, whereas about 66% said they did not.

Ross said his office does not have the authority to weigh in on what election system should be used and accommodates elections requests while complying with the law.

He did say, however, that he hopes any agency wishing to switch its election system will give his staff adequate time to re-educate the public about proper voting procedures.

“Each year, my staff has to talk with people about marking and signing their own ballot,” he said. “We also have to talk to people about checking only one person.”

Engle, of OneAmerica, an immigrant and refugee advocacy group based in Seattle, said Yakima voters would be able to switch to the new system without too much difficulty.

“Once voters understand that they’re able to rank candidates based on their preferences, ranked-choice voting isn’t too hard to understand,” she said. “While the county would need to play their part in educating voters about this change, OneAmerica and FairVote Washington are happy to be involved and spread the word.”

Ross, who sat in on a presentation by Pierce County staff several years ago about the decision to move to ranked-choice voting, said he remembered the county needed to obtain some kind of certification waiver from the state.

Engle said a report co-authored by FairVote and the New America Foundation showed racial minority populations preferred ranked-choice voting and found it easy to use. That report also found out that ranked-choice voting increased voter turnout by 2.7 times in San Francisco, she said.

But the options presented to county commissioners in the letter were not the only two alternatives the groups would be willing to consider, Engle said.

“We’re open to any system that promises to improve representation for communities of color in Yakima.”

The Board of County Commissioners, in the news release, said it reserves the right to pursue legal action and would offer further comment about the letter’s allegations later.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.