Washington's Newly Signed Voting Rights Act Empowers Communities of Color
The state admitted to weakening Latino votes based on racist practices. Now, it's committed to change.
Image via office of the Governor
It’s been more than 50 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted. Nevertheless, black Americans, and other Americans of color, continue to disproportionately battle disenfranchisement and underrepresentation in elected offices. Lawmakers and activists in Washington state have worked to improve representation and voting rights for communities of color throughout the state. On March 19, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) into law, and it’s a significant advancement for voting rights and representation.
The WVRA was one of five bills, dubbed the “Access to Democracy” package, Inslee signed into law on March 19. The state’s Voting Rights Act allows local governments to hold district-based elections – or other alternative voting systems – as an effort to promote equal representation in elected offices by ensuring minority representation.
Voting rights efforts, like in Washington, are especially important considering the grave impacts disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and lack of representation have on people of color.
Many localities in Washington use an at-large voting system, in which the entire city or community votes to elect a candidate. But this system has shown to have diluted votes from minority groups, and thus resulted in racially polarized voting – and a resulting lack of minority representation in public offices. Without local district elections, the interests of many minority groups went underrepresented throughout the state.
In 2012 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington successfully sued the City of Yakima on behalf of Yakima residents Mateo Arteaga and Rogelio Montes. The suit argued that Yakima’s at-large election system diluted the Latino voting power, and prevented Latinos from having a fair opportunity to get elected to public office.
In 2014, a federal court ruled that the City of Yakima’s at-large election system indeed violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting Latino votes. Prior to the ruling, as the LA Times reported, no person with a Spanish surname had been elected to City Council – despite Latinos making up more than 40 percent of the city’s population. After Yakima moved to a district-based election in 2015, the city elected its first three Latina council members that same year.
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The ACLU of Washington was also successful in a voting rights lawsuit against the City of Pasco in 2016. The Pasco City Council agreed that their at-large elections system violated the federal Voting Rights Act by also inherently diluting Latino votes.
Voting rights efforts, like in Washington, are especially important considering the grave impacts disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and lack of representation have on people of color. According to research reported in The Atlantic, strict voter ID laws, for example, have reportedly doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in general elections, and nearly doubled the gap between whites and blacks in primary elections.
“It will empower disenfranchised communities, and people of color, to elect leaders that reflect their values and the rich diversity of our state."
And as states grapple with voter suppression, representation in public office continues to be critical. In criminal justice systems – where studies have shown blacks are more likely to be wrongly convicted – prosecutors across the country are overwhelmingly white men.
For years, the Washington State House of Representatives repeatedly passed a House version of WVRA, which was sponsored by State Rep. Mia Gregerson. But the legislation would stall in a then GOP-controlled Senate. After now Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) won a state Senate seat in November 2017, a new Senate under Democratic control then passed WVRA, primarily sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, earlier this year.
In a press release issued by Inslee’s office, Saldaña said the legislation puts power “back into the hands of the people where it belongs.”
“It will empower disenfranchised communities, and people of color, to elect leaders that reflect their values and the rich diversity of our state,” she said according to the statement. “This is a big step forward in realizing a truly representative government.”
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