A time for voting rights

State lawmakers should enshrine the principle of “one person, one vote” and pass the Washington Voting Rights Act. The impetus is straightforward (at least for those who noodle the data.) Washington’s political class doesn’t mirror the state’s evolving demographics.

Except for political wonks, rhetoric about voting systems has an Ambien-like effect (The problem — and obstacle for greater diversity in some elections — is systemic. And at-large voting often marginalizes minority voters.) It’s easier to reduce the problem to its bones, that minorities, especially Latinos in Eastern Washington, don’t have a political voice because of an antiquated voting system that magnifies the white and non-white divide.

In 10 counties in Eastern Washington, more than a third of residents are Latino, but 96 percent (!) of elected officials are non-Latino. The problem is the lack of single-member districts — a paltry one percent. As a result, Latino voters are lumped into at-large districts with a majority population that often votes (just like Latinos) along ethnic or racial lines. From local school boards, to city councils, to county commissions, Latino candidates are shoved to the curb.

One reason Hispanic candidates for statewide office are as unseen as a Mariners playoff game is the limited opportunity to work from the bottom-up. Without local and county political experience and contacts, it’s a bear for anyone to springboard into a statewide position. Think Catch-22 for minority politicos who, rung by rung, hope to step up the electoral ladder.

The remedy is as simple as it is overdue. A state voting rights’ act will allow classes of voters to challenge at-large voting if, combined with a pattern of racial polarization, there is evidence that minority populations are elbowed out. If the evidence is compelling, then a more-representative district-based system is established. It’s bracingly democratic. And fair. And American.

The first iteration of a state voting rights act was sidelined in the last legislative session. Sponsors included state Sens. Nick Harper and Rosemary McAuliffe and, on the house side, Reps. Luis Moscoso and John McCoy. In 2013, all members of the Snohomish County delegation, Republican and Democrat, should make it a priority.

Snohomish County voters will tut-tut Washingtonians east of the Cascades, but we also have issues regarding equal representation. Snohomish County has an Asian population of nearly 12 percent, although only 1.4 percent of local elected officials are Asian. African-Americans, at 3.7 percent of the county population, hold one-half of one percent of local-elected positions.

Make no mistake: Even after the Legislature passes the Washington Voting Rights Act, walking into a city or county council meeting will have the feel of a Rotary lunch. Let’s just make it a Rotary lunch circa 2012, not 1952.

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