Latino Political Representation in Toppenish, Wapato, and Granger School Districts: The Case for Change

Nicholas Dollar

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My report asks how the structure and administration of elections affects low levels of Latino representation and participation on Toppenish, Wapato, and Granger school boards..  In particular, I focused on determining whether or not the system of elections in these towns leads to minority vote dilution, or a systematic decrease in the influence of Latino voters, as defined under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Methods:  I began my study by determining whether or not each of these school districts utilized a system of elections which had the potential to produce minority vote dilution.  I then selected six recent school board elections in which a Latino candidate ran against a non-Latino candidate and obtained the voter records for these elections from the Yakima County Auditor’s Office.  Using these records, I analyzed these elections for racially polarized voting, or voters tending to overwhelmingly choose candidates of their same race over other candidates.  The existence of racially polarized voting is a key test for minority vote dilution under the Voting Rights Act.  In addition to election analyses, I interviewed recent Latino candidates, knowledgeable community members, and key staff at the Yakima County Auditor’s Office in order to provide context for the results of my study.

Findings:

  • In the Toppenish and Wapato School Districts, I found significant evidence of racially polarized voting in recent school board elections.  As such, my research strongly suggests that the winner-take-all, at-large elections in these districts produces minority vote dilution by systematically reducing the influence of the Latino vote.
  • In the Granger School District, I found consistent low levels of Latino representation, but little or no evidence of racially polarized voting.
  • In all elections, Latinos consistently turned out to vote at lower rates than other voters.
  • The Yakima County Auditor’s Office has taken great strides towards making the election process more accessible to Latino voters and seems to be in compliance with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires bilingual elections in the county.

Recommendations:

  • The Toppenish and Wapato School Districts should change their system of elections to ensure Latino voters a fair and equal voice in electing the school board.
  • Alternative systems include single-member district elections and alternative at-large formats, such as limited, cumulative, and preference voting.
  • District elections may be available through litigation under the Voting Rights Act, but voluntary change would provide a wider range of options for these communities.
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