Here in the progressive Northwest, we like to think that voting rights issues are a problem for the southern “red” states. But a recent federal court busted that myth in a ruling that the City of Yakima’s at-large system disenfranchises Latino voters and, therefore, runs afoul of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.
We hope the City Council does not appeal this ruling and, instead, adopts a more representative system of voting by districts. Further, we hope other cities and counties throughout the state, where people of color remain largely on the fringes of elected office, take similar proactive measures.
Gov. Jay Inslee has joined the chorus of voices urging Yakima city officials to not appeal the ruling. Instead, the governor called on council to “show leadership … for all of Washington” and to “send a clear message … (about) our shared goal of a truly representative democracy.” Amen.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, have twice introduced to the state Legislature their unsuccessful Washington Voting Rights Act. It would enable, even encourage, local jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to small district-based elections.
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And, when the evidence is convincing that the system has shut out distinct communities, the bill would give those people redress through the courts.
The American Civil Liberties Union decided it couldn’t wait for state lawmakers to act and sued the City of Yakima in this precedent-setting case. It was a slam-dunk because Yakima is so obviously in violation of federal law.
Latinos make up about 41 percent of the City of Yakima’s 91,000 residents, but not one has ever been elected to the City Council. Latinos hold only 4 percent of local elected offices in 10 Central Washington counties, despite making up more than a third of the population.
A study by Whitman College found that although Latinos comprise about 50 percent of the populations of Adams and Franklin counties, they hold only eight of 247 publicly elected positions.
Thurston County fares no better. Our population is roughly 7.4 percent Latinos, 3 percent African-Americans and 5.4 percent Asians, yet our elected officials do not reflect that diversity.
More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed from the steps of the Lincoln that America would live up to its promise “that all men are created equal.” King was speaking primarily of racial issues, but also more broadly about issues of inequality that affect all people, ranging from economic inequality to unequal access to the political system.
As a nation, we have not fully achieved King’s dream and America’s promise. As a state, we have the opportunity in the next legislative session to enshrine equal political opportunity and access for all Washingtonians.
That shouldn’t be a difficult or partisan task.