Issue Spotlight: Fighting for voting rights in Sunnyside and beyond

Wednesday, May 22, 2024
A light pink background with 3 illustrated peace sign hands of various skin tones with banners that say vote
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Voting is an essential way people effectuate change in their communities. And yet, for many Latinx residents, the election process doesn’t always produce equitable results. The ACLU of Washington is working alongside the community organization Empowering Latina Leaders and Action (ELLA) to change that for voters in Sunnyside, a Tri-Cities community where, for years, Latinx residents have felt they lacked representation in their school district. 

Last month, ELLA, represented by the ACLU-WA and Molly Peach Matter, notified the Sunnyside School District that its election system violates the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). 

Voters elect candidates to the Sunnyside School Board in at-large races, but the at-large system dilutes the Latinx vote in the community. The city of Sunnyside is 86 percent Latinx. The Sunnyside School District — which includes rural areas around the city — is 81 percent Latinx. And yet no Latinx candidate has ever beaten a white candidate in a school board race.  

“The problem can be summed up by saying that a small number of voters are being allowed to control the political process for a much larger group of voters,” said David Montes, the ACLU-WA’s lead attorney on the case. 

Maria Fernandez, ELLA’s executive director, contacted the ACLU-WA last year after trying unsuccessfully to get Latinx candidates elected to the school board.  

One of ELLA’s candidates would have won their race if the election system were by-district, as Fernandez said Latinx voters came out in record numbers to achieve representation on the school board. 

“However, the district’s at-large voting system once again defeated the will of the people within the Latino-majority districts,” Fernandez said. 

At-large elections allow for every voter to elect candidates in all districts, as opposed to by-district elections where voters only vote for candidates in their district. Because white voters in the school district vote as a bloc, as shown by a racially polarized voting analysis, white candidates defeat Latinx candidates in every at-large school district race in Sunnyside. 

There is also a long history of discrimination in the Yakima Valley, which compounds the issue and interferes with Latinx participation in elections. Latinx candidates in Sunnyside have faced threats and retaliation. In last year’s elections, ELLA’s candidates endured racist attacks, including people referring to the organization as a “cartel” or a “gang.” 

The at-large system ultimately results in a school district that is not representative of, or accountable to the community. Latinx students in the school district are punished at higher rates than at other schools in the Yakima Valley that have similar demographics. Parents have voiced concerns to the district and school board about issues including racism, disparate discipline, and retaliation, but those concerns are often dismissed or met with hostility. 

“And that just reflects a sort of animus towards the students in the district,” Montes said. “Many people in the Latinx community don’t feel heard by the school board, and the school board seems sure that there’s not going to be any consequences for them if they aren’t responsive.” 

The WVRA gives the school district 90 days to remedy the voting rights violation. If a court-approved plan isn’t in place by mid-July, the ACLU-WA will sue. 

This action is part of a broader effort by the ACLU-WA and others to make voting systems in Washington state fairer and more representative. It is also happening nearly a decade after a monumental case that made changing voting systems possible in Washington. 

In 2014, the ACLU-WA won Montes v. Yakima (No relation to David Montes, the ACLU-WA attorney in the Sunnyside case), ending at-large voting for the Yakima City Council. Since then, several other jurisdictions, including the 15th Legislative District, City of Pasco, and Franklin County have changed their election systems due to voting rights violations. 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 WVRA, but the ACLU-WA is hoping the Sunnyside case inspires Washington leaders to act and know that, if their election system is not equitable, change is possible. 

“Ultimately, it would be better if every jurisdiction just changed to district-based voting systems, and we didn’t have to worry about litigating cases piece by piece,” Montes said. “But we will until jurisdictions get the message that they need to change things.” 


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