Closing the wide gap between Latino population and representation in much of Washington
Washington state is doing a dismal job of electing Latinos that represent their rapidly growing populations in many parts of our state, writes Whitman College professor Paul Apostolidis. We can, and should, enact state voting reforms to change that.
Special to The Times
AMERICAN voters are getting an earful these days about how decisive the Latino vote will be in the presidential election. Let's remember the high stakes for communities of color in state and local elections. Local leaders make most of the crucial decisions that affect our daily lives.
Washington state is doing a dismal job of electing Latinos that represent their rapidly growing populations in many parts of our state. We can, and should, enact state voting reforms to change that.
At Whitman College, students conducted intensive studies of Latino political representation through our community-based research program on "The State of the State for Washington Latinos" (www.walatinos.org). From out in the wheat fields and vineyards of Eastern Washington, their findings paint a devastating picture of racial and ethnic inequality.
Whitman researchers examined political representation in local government in the 10 counties where Latinos make up the highest percentages of county population: Skagit, Yakima, Walla Walla, Chelan, Grant, Adams, Okanogan, Franklin, Benton and Douglas counties.
In 2009, Latinos occupied barely 4 percent of local offices in a region where they accounted for nearly 33 percent of the population. Even worse, in the great majority of local offices there were no Latinos serving at all — no Latino hospital commissioners, fire commissioners or port commissioners. Not one Latino was serving in countywide office.
We analyzed school board and city council elections in the same 10 counties from 1983 to 2011. Even though these are the contests that Latinos tend to win more often, Latinos still very rarely win.
The good news: Latino representation in heavily Latino counties was close to zero 30 years ago, whereas in more recent years it has headed north toward 5 percent. The bad news: The gap between the Latino population percentage and the level of Latino representation is widening.
Whitman researchers have also done case studies of Yakima Valley towns, where Latinos make up some three-quarters of local residents. We wanted to know, why was there only one Latino out of seven City Council members in Sunnyside, or just one school board member out of five in both Toppenish and Wapato?
We found that Latino candidates were losing elections because of racial bloc voting in at-large systems. A city with an at-large system holds elections citywide. It is not divided into geographic districts for, let's say, city council elections, so that voters within each district would choose just one council member.
Seattle City Council, for example, has an at-large system whereas King County Council elections are district based.
Reams of political-science research show that at-large systems depress political representation and civic involvement for people of color.
When people tend to vote in racial blocs — with whites voting for whites and nonwhites voting for nonwhites — there may be legal grounds under the federal Voting Rights Act that would require a municipality to switch from at-large to district elections. Unfortunately, litigating has become virtually impossible because of cumbersome and expensive evidentiary requirements.
During the last legislative session, state lawmakers took courageous steps toward historic change in voting rights. The Washington State Voting Rights Act was approved by committees in both chambers and nearly came to a floor vote. The act would have enabled Washingtonians to challenge at-large local voting systems in state court if advocates could show patterns of minority underrepresentation and racial bloc voting.
This is neither just a Latino issue, nor only a problem in Eastern Washington. African Americans and Asian Americans are also gravely underrepresented in local government — right in King County.
None of us wants to live in a racially segregated society. Over the past 50 years we've made progress toward equal opportunity at the loftiest heights of American politics.
But sometimes, the injustices nearest at hand are hardest to see. Let's pass the Washington Voting Rights Act next year so all Washingtonians have the chance to elect local candidates of their choice.Paul Apostolidis is professor and the T. Paul Chair of Political Science at Whitman College.