By Rich Stolz, Executive Director of OneAmerica and a PSARA member
A key theme that has emerged since the 2012 elections is the growing power of Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander, and immigrant voters. In Washington State, minority populations represent the fastest growing demographics. In fact, the growth in communities of color helped the state gain a tenth congressional district in the latest round of redistricting, amplifying the voice of all state residents in Congress. In many local governing bodies across the state, however, there is a dearth of minority representation.
When voters go to the polls, they want to know that they have an equal opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice, regardless of skin color, and have their vote count. The Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), HB1413/SB5473, will be an effective tool to ensure fair representation and accountability in local elections – the overriding values of any healthy democracy.
The WVRA looks specifically at polarized voting– where there is a difference in the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class and those preferred by the rest of the electorate—when it denies certain communities an equal opportunity to influence elections. The most common problem with polarized voting is when it is combined with an at-large election system. This allows slim majorities to dominate elections, resulting in significant blocs of voters never having the opportunity to elect leaders who represent their communities.
Here is an example of how it might play out at the local level: imagine that a city elects 10 council members at-large. If 60 percent of its voters continually prefer candidates that oppose funding for social services, then only candidates who run opposed to funding for social services will win and occupy all 10 council seats. So, while 40 percent of voters prefer candidates that support social services, their position will have no representation on the council.
Under the WVRA, that city would be empowered to change to a district-based election system under which the 40 percent minority voting bloc could elect at least some representatives to the council to fight for social service funding and government becomes more accountable.
Upon passage of the WVRA, local jurisdictions would have more flexibility to move from at-large to district-based elections, since there are currently some restrictions on how election systems operate. If a challenge were brought under the WVRA, local jurisdictions would have 45 days to review evidence of polarized voting that denies voters an equal opportunity to influence elections. If convinced, jurisdictions could choose to voluntarily adopt acceptable election systems and avoid litigation. If a jurisdiction chose not to voluntarily conform to the WVRA, litigation would ensue and the courts would determine whether changes to the election system were necessary.
The federal Voting Rights Act has been an important tool in defense of voting rights for years, but it has come under attack and may be struck down altogether. The WVRA is necessary to ensure that Washington State continues to protect fair representation for all communities.