Passing a Washington Voting Rights Act, which could mandate redistricting of city elections from at-large to districted, has bedeviled state Democrats for nearly a decade.
But now that the election is over, a major priority for the ascendant state Democratic majority will be to make state elections fair for minority candidates, whose electoral prospects are significantly diminished under the at-large voting system used by most Washington cities.
Bills advancing a state voting rights act have snaked through the legislature annually, often passing the Democratic-held House, only to die on the Senate floor. But Manka Dhingra’s win in the 45th, which won the Senate back for Democrats, restored hope for advocates pushing a Washington Voting Rights Act, who for years have been waging a battle for electoral equality across the state.
The fight began earnestly in 2012 when the ACLU filed a suit against the city of Yakima alleging that the city weakened the votes of its majority Latino population by using a prejudiced voting system.
At the time, the Yakima voting system required the city’s whole population to vote for every city council candidate despite the fact that candidates were running to represent a city district. The system allowed the city’s slim white majority of Yakima to consistently vote down all non-white candidates.
For decades and despite a burgeoning Latino population, no single Latino was elected to Yakima city council despite the attempts of dozens of Latino candidates.
In 2014, the ACLU followed its Yakima suit with a similar one against Pasco, in which it claimed that the Pasco’s at-large voting system “impermissibly dilutes the Latino votes" and violates the federal voting rights act. Pasco’s Latino population represented 56% of the population of the city in 2014, yet no single Latino held elected office.
Both the Yakima and Pasco lawsuits were successful, and both cities were required by court order to dismantle their at-large voting system and replace it with a districted system. A districted system would allows segments of a city, rather than the entire city, to elect city council members.
The change succeeded in diversifying the cities as a handful of Latino candidates would go on to win city council positions for the first time. In Yakima, Dulce Gutierrez, Avina Gutierrez and Carmen Mendez won seats in 2015, the first election after the mandatory re-districting. In Pasco, Ruben Alvarado, Blanche Barajas, and Saul Martinez won council seats in November’s election.
“It has done a lot to level the playing field,” says Ruben Alvarado of the lawsuits.
Alvarado claims that he would not have run had it not been for the court-mandated re-districting. “It was entirely prohibitive beforehand,” he adds.
But victories through lawsuits have meant that progress has been piecemeal. While Pasco's and Yakima's city council saw gains in Latino representation, both bodies are still majority white despite the cities being majority Latino.
While the most obvious structural inequality to securing representation may be gone, Latino candidates still face challenges securing funding in areas where businesses and finance have been historically dominated by whites, candidates tell The Stranger.
“[Fundraising] has a lot to do with networking and who you know,” says Blanche Barajas. “People here are conservative and still not as comfortable endorsing someone without a master’s degree or who is Latino.”
Making things worse is that Latino voter registration and turnout has been low compared to whites in Pasco and Yakima, says Rich Stolz, the Executive Director of One America, an immigrant’s rights advocacy group. Language barriers, work schedules (particularly for farm workers), and lack of experienced campaign staff also play a role in undermining the candidacies of Latinos.
But these are problems that minority groups face only after they have abolished at-large voting. So far only Pasco and Yakima have managed to do so.
In cities across Washington at-large electoral systems subsist, including in Wenatchee, Vancouver, and Sammamish.
In Tukwila, Ubah Aden, a Somali candidate for the Tukwila school board, won her primary by a large margin only to lose to a white candidate in the general election. Aden’s primary was districted, but the general election was decided by the city at-large. She lost the general by 1,026 votes.
Absent a Washington Voting Rights Act minority candidates are forced appeal to the federal voting rights act through costly lawsuits—the ACLU lawsuit against Yakima cost nearly $3 million to adjudicate.
Even if a city was interested in moving to a districted system, it would not be abe to. “Cities don’t have the authority to make changes on their own,” says Stolz. This is because a 1994 state law prevents cities from making changes to their electoral system.
“The focus is now on a state voting rights act,” says ACLU communications director, Doug Honig.
Cities and counties reluctant to embrace re-districting and advocates for electoral equality are gearing up for the Washington special legislative session in 2018, where the Washington Voting Rights Act will once again be considered.
With a majority Democrat legislature, its chances have never looked better.