As the results in the race for Washington State Supreme Court Justice Position 8 rolled in after the August 7 primary election, it seemed clear to seasoned political observers that something was very wrong. Kitsap County attorney Bruce Danielson, who was described by the head of his local bar association as having "zero qualifications to be on the bench," and who had raised exactly $0 for his largely nonexistent campaign, was pulling in nearly 440,000 votes and winning 29 counties, including every single county in Eastern Washington.
His opponent: Incumbent state supreme court justice Steve Gonzalez, who was flush with endorsements, had raised $340,000, and ended up with only 10 counties on his side, all of them in Western Washington.
Due to the large populations of those Western Washington counties, Gonzalez won the election, netting 60 percent of the statewide vote to Danielson's 40. And, following the unique rules for two-person judicial primaries, that was that—Gonzalez will keep his seat for the next six years. Clearly, however, something odd had happened in this race.
When The Stranger and other news outlets suggested that the only way to really explain the results was prejudicial voting by Eastern Washingtonians who apparently preferred the Anglo surname Danielson over the Latino surname Gonzalez—candidate qualifications be damned—many cried foul.
"Not so fast," wrote one commenter on Slog, The Stranger's blog, on August 8. "Perhaps the part of the state that's basically Republican used their right to vote to vote for someone who apparently shared their values." (Never mind that there was no statewide voters' pamphlet this year due to budget constraints, so it would have been hard for most Eastern Washington voters to know what Danielson's values actually were.)
Similarly, in an August 17 letter to the Seattle Times, Michael G. Hanks of Federal Way argued with a Seattle Times editorial that said the Danielson-Gonzalez results showed "racially polarized voting" and proved the need for election reform. "The Times suggests supporting evidence for its assertion will be provided in the coming weeks by University of Washington researchers," Hanks wrote. "Can't The Times wait for those fact-based conclusions before it disparages every nonminority voter who decided to support Bruce Danielson?"
Well, now those fact-based conclusions are in.
"The answer in the data is that there is a lot of racially polarized voting going on in Eastern Washington," says Matt A. Barreto, a pollster at the University of Washington who led an effort to crunch precinct-level results in the Danielson-Gonzalez race and gave The Stranger an exclusive first look at his findings. "It's especially prominent in low-information elections like this one—we have to remember the backdrop was that there was no voters' guide."
Barreto's findings show, for example, that in Eastern Washington's Yakima County, Danielson drew a full 75 percent of the non-Latino vote (helping Danielson receive 64 percent of the vote overall in that county to Gonzalez's 36 percent). In fact, non-Latino voters flocked so decisively to Danielson in Yakima County that he outperformed fellow conservative Rob McKenna there by 14 points. "Danielson should not have outperformed anyone," Barreto says, "because he had no name recognition and no money."
Same story in neighboring Grant County: Danielson won the county 67 percent to 33 percent, outperformed McKenna by 7 points, and pulled in 70 percent of the non-Latino vote.
Contrast those results with the results in Western Washington's Snohomish County, where Gonzalez won. In Snohomish, Danielson polled roughly even with McKenna, which makes sense, and is a sign that voters there were making choices based on ideology rather than on a candidate's last name. This allowed the non-Latino vote in Snohomish to be more evenly distributed: 44 percent of non-Latino voters there went for Danielson, while 56 percent went for Gonzalez.
Barreto has more findings showing how racially polarized voting helped Danielson in Eastern Washington, and he's posted them at http://goo.gl/HdNHn. But he points out that one doesn't necessarily have to go all the way down to precinct-level data and engage in regression analyses, as he and his colleagues at the UW did, to see something awry.
In the race for Supreme Court Justice Position 2, he points out, incumbent justice Susan Owens, who raised less money than Gonzalez and seems roughly similar to him in ideology, won every single county in the state. If ideological choices were driving Gonzalez's results in Eastern Washington, then her election results should have mirrored his.
Barreto, who has testified as an expert in federal voting-rights cases, says his research "points to a definite problem in the state. I think when you look at some localities in Central and Eastern Washington, that there are some specific localities that have a history of failing to elect Latinos or other minorities to their school boards—if that is happening at the same time that racially polarized voting is happening, then the federal Voting Rights Act says you could have a lawsuit on your hands."
In fact, Yakima County is currently facing a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU. Although Latinos constitute 41 percent of the population there, Yakima has never elected a Latino to the city council—"not even once," says Seattle attorney David A. Perez, who is following the case. The alleged problem: The same racially polarized voting that contributed to the Danielson-Gonzalez result, combined with a lack of district elections in Yakima County, ends up diluting Latino votes and preventing Latino candidates from receiving a majority in local elections.
Perez says a solution for Yakima County—and the nine other Central Washington counties that have zero Latino port commissioners, county officers, county judges, or county commissioners—is the proposed Washington Voting Rights Act, which he and others have been pushing, unsuccessfully so far, in the state legislature. He says it would allow voters to challenge unfair election procedures when necessary.
But a lot of lawmakers simply don't believe racially polarized voting is happening in Eastern Washington, Perez says. Now he hopes they'll believe it. "We'd still rather that not have happened," he says of the blatantly prejudiced voting that led to the Gonzalez-Danielson result. "But the consolation prize is it's out in the open now."
This article has been updated since its original publication.