Empowering Latina Leaders and Action (ELLA), ACLU of Washington notify Sunnyside School Board of Washington State Voting Rights Act violation

News Release: 
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Leer en Español: Empowering Latina Leaders and Action (ELLA) y ACLU de Washington notifican a Junta Escolar de Sunnyside sobre violación de la Ley del Derecho al Voto del Estado de Washington

For Immediate Release

April 16, 2024
Media Contact:
LaVendrick Smith, ACLU of Washington, [email protected]
Maria Fernandez, Empowering Latina Leadership & Action, [email protected]
Empowering Latina Leaders and Action (ELLA), ACLU of Washington notify Sunnyside School Board of Washington State Voting Rights Act violation
Sunnyside, WA — ELLA, through counsel, ACLU-WA and Molly Peach Matter, submitted a Notice of Intent to Sue to the Sunnyside School District on Tuesday, informing the District that its election system violates the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). The District’s current at-large election system dilutes Latinx votes, preventing the community from having an equal opportunity to meaningfully influence the outcome of elections, despite Latinx residents representing a substantial majority of the community.

At-large election systems allow every voter to cast a vote in every electoral race, meaning a majority voting population will win every seat if they vote as a bloc. Sunnyside’s Latinx residents tend to be younger, so many are not yet able to vote. They have also been historically disenfranchised, and so vote in smaller numbers than white voters. This results in Latinx voters representing a smaller voting population than white voters in the Sunnyside School District, despite being the vast majority of the population.

Even though Sunnyside is 86% Latinx, and the School District — which includes rural areas around the City — is 81% Latinx, no Latinx candidate has ever beat a white candidate in a School Board race. Because white voters vote as a bloc, as shown by a Racially Polarized Voting (RPV) analysis, white candidates defeat Latinx candidates in every at-large School District race.

This dynamic results in a School District that isn’t representative of, or accountable to, the community. Latinx students are punished at higher rates than at other schools in the Yakima Valley with similar demographics. Parents have raised concerns about disparate discipline, racism in the schools, and retaliation, among other issues. When parents voice their concerns to the District and School Board, they are often dismissed or met with hostility.

These problems are compounded by a long history of discrimination in the Yakima Valley, which discourages and interferes with Latinx participation in elections. Historically, voters in the Yakima Valley have been subject to voting discrimination. In Sunnyside, Latinx candidates have faced threats and retaliation. In the recent election cycle ELLA candidates endured racist language, including people referring to the organization as a “cartel” or a “gang.”

“We know that Latin@s came out in record numbers to vote for Latin@ representation in both the city council and School Board races,” Maria Fernandez, ELLA’s executive director, said of the most recent elections. “However, the District’s at-large election system, once again defeated the will of the people within the Latino-majority districts.”
“Our children don’t feel safe or heard by Sunnyside School District’s administration, and that has to change,” said Raquel Lopez, a Migrant Student Nurse whose son was assaulted at Sunnyside High School earlier this year. “Changing our at-large voting system will give us the opportunity to make needed, lasting changes to ensure the School Board is accountable to our students and community.”

This action is part of a broader effort by the ACLU-WA and others to make voting systems in Washington state more fair and representative. In 2014, the ACLU-WA won Montes v. Yakima, ending at-large voting for the Yakima City Council. In the interim, several other jurisdictions, including the 15th Legislative District, City of Pasco, and Franklin County have had to change their election systems due to a voting rights violation. The WVRA was enacted in 2018 to allow jurisdictions to change their voting system without costly litigation. Many jurisdictions have not taken advantage of the law.

“Voting is one of the essential ways people can effectuate change in their communities, but right now, Sunnyside’s Latinx community is not being heard by its school board and doesn’t have a fair chance to change that” said David Montes, Staff Attorney for the ACLU-WA. “We are hopeful the Board will work with us in good faith to remedy these concerns.”

The WVRA gives the District 90 days to have a remedy to the violation approved. If the District does not have a remedy approved in this time, ACLU-WA will file suit.