Time for Washington to have a Voting Rights Act
Proposals in the Washington Legislature would foster important conversations about why the state's minority groups, Hispanics in particular, are badly underrepresented in local government positions.
Seattle Times Editorial
HISPANICS are the fastest-growing demographic in Washington state yet they are hugely underrepre-sented in local elected offices. This raises questions about equal opportunity guaranteed in the federal Voting Rights Act.
It also garnered the attention of some state lawmakers who have proposed bills that would allow voters to challenge local elections where qualified minority candidates are shut out. Successful challenges may spur a judge to compel a shift from at-large voting — where a city elects its officials across the city — to a district-based format that draws lines to increase minority voter influence.
This is a solid avenue for voter redress. It broadens a conversation about political representation hastened by stark numbers.
In 10 counties across Central Washington, Latinos make up more than 33 percent of the total population, yet they hold fewer than 4 percent of the local elected offices. Yakima is 41 percent Hispanic, but has never elected a Hispanic to the City Council. Adams and Franklin counties are more than 50 percent Hispanic yet in 2009 had only eight Hispanic elected officials out of 247 local government positions.
Local political elements may explain some of the dramatic underrepresentation — for example, voter apathy and immigrants who cannot vote. But patterns of racially polarized voting have been singled out as a particular culprit.
Analyses of voting patterns point to a racial phenomenon in voting. In some communities, heavily white precincts vote for white candidates and black precincts vote for black candidates. Yakima's data shows that, election after election, Latino voters favor Latino candidates, and white voters strongly tend to vote against the Latino candidates.
That's racially polarized voting. Courts have ruled this practice is a problem only if it blocks one racial group from electing one of its own.
The legislation would create an appropriately high bar for filing suit, decreasing the likelihood of frivolous challenges. It is unlikely someone could successfully argue that voting in Seattle is a civil-rights problem. That argument would be quickly refuted by the faces of color on the City Council, School Board and the Seattle Port Commission.
That isn't always the case east of the Cascade Mountains. There, a dearth of Latinos elected to oversee local parks, schools, fire departments or water and land resources flies in the face of a representative democracy. Civic résumés are built at the local level — city council, school board, water commission or fire district — making it more critical to have fairness begin there.
Washington's effort is modeled after the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. It is good policy and ought to prevail.