(LOS ANGELES ) – Officials in Yakima County, Washington must change the system and maps used to elect county commissioners or risk a federal lawsuit, according to a letter sent by a Latino civil rights organization.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) sent a letter Friday warning the Board of Yakima County Commissioners that the current at-large election system likely violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibits voting practices or procedures that dilute a minority group’s voting power.

“At-large voting, even with districts used for nomination of candidates, too often freezes out a significant minority group from fair electoral participation,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “Yakima County should embrace inclusion by allowing districts to elect their own representatives to the board.”

Latinos comprise nearly 30 percent of Yakima County’s citizen voting age population and nearly 29 percent of registered voters in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since 1998, however, only one Latino candidate has served on the county’s board of commissioners, the letter states.

MALDEF attorneys said the lack of success of a Latino-preferred candidate is the result of the current at-large election system.

“Latino voters in Yakima County deserve equitable access to the electoral process,” said Tanya Pellegrini, a staff attorney with MALDEF.  “Yakima County can provide that equal opportunity by moving to district-based elections and away from a system that prevents Latino voters from having a meaningful voice in choosing a representative.”

MALDEF is also demanding that county officials redraw existing maps that divide a politically cohesive Latino community in the central and southeast sections of Yakima into two districts.

MALDEF is asking county officials to respond to the demand letter within 30 days.

Read the letter HERE.