The Yakima County Commission does not reflect the diversity of our views and our communities. Latinos and Native Americans make up about half of the population of Yakima County, and yet only one candidate that looks like us or has experienced similar life challenges has ever been elected to the commission. That was over 20 years ago. We work hard, we pay our taxes, and we care about our families. It feels like we are eternally fighting an uphill battle when it comes to equality and true representation in the County Commission.

The commission is also in charge of the Yakima Health Board, which is responsible for keeping us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yakima County has become one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in the country. Cases are particularly high in our communities, as farm workers and laborers who are essential workers are keeping our food supplies strong. In fact, over two-thirds of all people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county are Latinos.

Why is the Yakima Health District spending less on COVID-19 response than any county in Washington per capita, compared to our number of cases? This decision lies with the county commissioners. Without equal representation, addressing these issues will never be a priority. We are the ones who pay the price.

Over the years, we have had excellent, qualified candidates running for the Yakima County Commission, and yet they don’t get elected. The problem is the way we run our elections. Having a primary election where we vote by districts and a general election where we vote at-large all but guarantees that we are not able to elect candidates of our choice. Every two years we vote for county commissioners, but can we call this a democracy if we know in advance that the system is stacked against us and none of our preferred candidates will be elected? Democracy means government of the people, by the people, for the people. We have to create a democracy that works for all the people.

Two years ago, the state signed the Washington Voting Rights Act into law. It says every community must have an equal opportunity to elect a candidate that represents them. Earlier this year a group of us county residents sent the commission a notice letter telling them that our elections are in violation of the Washington Voting Rights Act, and asking them to work with us to find an equitable solution. The commission had the opportunity to seek a voluntary solution, but it didn’t follow through, conduct outreach to the community or suggest a solution. Instead it ran down the clock and failed the community.

As a county, we need to look what other communities across the nation are doing to help elect diverse leadership. A solution that some of them have identified is ranked choice voting. It is a simple change we can make to our elections that allows voters to rank all the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, instead of choosing just one. With RCV, if your favorite candidate doesn’t have enough popular support to win a seat, your vote automatically counts for your next favorite. In other words, with RCV your vote always counts. When all our votes count, we can create new, diverse and equitable leadership in our county.

It shouldn’t take the devastation of a pandemic to see that diverse leadership is critical for the health of Yakima. That’s why we’re holding the Yakima County Commission accountable to follow the law and respect our voting rights, so we can have equal representation.

Susan Soto Palmer lives in Yakima. Bengie Aguilar is a former Sunnyside City Council member.