Yakima County Plaintiffs lead a virtual news conference via Zoom on Monday, July 13, 2020. The Plaintiffs announced the next steps in holding the Yakima County Commission accountable to stop violating the voting rights of the Latino community.

OneAmerica and four individuals filed a lawsuit Monday against Yakima County and its board of commissioners, alleging the county’s election system disenfranchises Latino voters in violation of the state’s Voting Rights Act.

The immigrant rights group on Monday held a video news conference announcing the lawsuit filed in Kittitas County Superior Court and encouraging Latino voters to continue to support the effort.

OneAmerica, former Sunnyside Councilwoman Evangelina Bengie Aguilar, former Yakima City Councilwoman Candy Dulce Gutierrez, and former political candidates Susan Soto Palmer and Rogelio Montes, filed the lawsuit.

Yakima County and commissioners Ron Anderson, Norm Childress and Vicki Baker are named as defendants.

During Monday’s news conference, OneAmerica accused Yakima County of not responding to a Jan. 15 letter seeking changes to the election system and subsequently prompting the lawsuit.

“I’m very disappointed that the Yakima County Commission has not responded,” Aguilar said. “It’s a shame that they will spend tax dollars against us on equitable representation.”

Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic said that’s not true. He said the county is still gathering information and asked for an extension to the 180-day period prior to a lawsuit.

“We asked for an additional 60 days, until Sept. 11, and it was summarily denied,” he said. “What we were trying to do is what is best for the voters of Yakima County.”

At issue is the way the county’s three commissioners are elected. Candidates are selected by voters in their respective districts during primary elections before becoming at-large candidates in the general election.

The lawsuit seeks a ruling declaring the county in violation of the state’s Voting Rights Act, an order requiring it to do away with the current at-large system and awarding the group attorney fees and other litigation costs.

The lawsuit points out several elections in which candidates favored by Latino voters were not selected in Yakima County, where Latinos account for nearly half the population and a third of the voting age population.

The lawsuit describes a polarized political landscape here where “white voters frequently vote as a bloc to defeat Latino voters’ candidates of choice.”

OneAmerica wants the county to change to a ranked choice voting system, which allows voters to rank their candidates of choice. If their top ranked candidate isn’t selected, then their vote goes to the one they ranked second. The process continues until all candidates are selected.

“This makes it possible for our voice to be heard,” Aguilar said. Otherwise, the Latino vote is diluted, she said.

The lawsuit accuses county commissioners of placing the needs of farmers before workers, blames them for contaminated groundwater in the Lower Valley where many farm laborers live, and says they didn’t respond fast enough to protect agriculture workers from the spread of COVID-19.

Several elections in which candidates favored by Latinos were not selected are mentioned in the lawsuit.

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Two recent notables are that of Debra Manjarrez and Palmer, both of whom sought a Yakima County Commission seat and both of whom handily won primary elections.

In 2016, Manjarrez won the four-way primary for District 2 with 36% of the votes, while Commissioner Ron Anderson followed with 30% of votes.

Anderson won the at-large general election.

Palmer had a similar experience in 2018, when she won the seven-way primary with 26% of the votes while Commissioner Norm Childress followed with 18%.

Childress won the general election.

Brusic said the county has been working with the group on the matter and the concerns are taken seriously.

He said the county even hired a demographer to assist in making decisions. He said data is being gathered, and that data will need to be analyzed by an expert to devise the best solution.

But the COVID-19 outbreak has slowed the effort, he said.

“This is all coming in the course of a pandemic and Yakima County being the worst place on the West Coast,” Brusic said. “We knew we needed more time because we are not able to publicly engage people.”

Brusic said the group intended to sue the county from the outset.

“They wanted to file a lawsuit clearly regardless of whatever we came up with because they want this litigated,” he said.

This isn’t the only group to raise an issue with the county over its election system.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — MALDEF — sent a letter to county officials June 19, saying the current election system is a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The group wants the county to do away with the at-large general election and establish a Latino-majority district.

Yakima County isn’t the only local government to face such a challenge.

A federal judge in 2014 ordered the city of Yakima to do away with its at-large City Council positions after being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union because it disenfranchised Latino voters.

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito