Voting rights are elemental, the centerpiece of a vital democracy. The question resonated decades ago, when Northwest families cheered the Tacoma Giants and watched Ed Sullivan on a Magnavox. Members of Washington’s U.S. Congressional delegation, weighing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, got slammed with calls demanding they preserve restrictions zeroing out African-American voters. Opponents were wrong then, just as opponents of the Washington Voting Rights Act are wrong today.
This year the Washington Legislature has a chance to bend towards justice and pass HB 1413, the Washington Voting Rights Act of 2013. The bill’s prime sponsor and champion is Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace.
The impetus is straightforward: Washington’s political class doesn’t mirror the state’s evolving demographics.
HB 1413 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 fair. And democratic.
“Our country has a long and honorable history in making sure everyone has a voice in making our democracy work. To that end, over the past 200 years we have amended our Constitution with four voting rights amendments — from women’s suffrage, to eliminating voting poll taxes, to passing the federal Voting Rights Act,” Moscoso said. “In Washington state we must ensure that all voices are heard in local elections. That everyone has a fair chance to be represented by candidates of their choice.”
The problem 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, 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.
Snohomish County voters may 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.
We can do better. Passing the Washington Voting Rights Act is a critical step forward.