Racial and ethnic minority groups are continually elbowed out of policy discussions at the local level due to an unfair elections system, at least according to supporters of a bill intended to change that.
Introduced in 2012, the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) aims to address the allegedly unfair system by providing legal remedy to citizens who feel that the community they live in is underrepresented in local government. Technically, the bill targets “polarized voting,” where there is a disparity between the losing candidate that minority groups voted for and the winning candidate voted for by the rest of the electorate.
A citizen who feels that their community is underrepresented by their current representative submits a grievance to their local government and if polarized voting is found to be present, then the district must make changes to their district make-up for future elections. The remedy for at-large districts would be to switch to district-based voting, which would create smaller voting blocs gerrymandered around smaller communities. If that change is not made within 45 days of the complaint, then the plaintiff may sue.
The bill is not all about race. Any group deemed a “protected class” – any social group protected from discrimination under federal law – could sue under this bill. Racial subgroups are just one significant protected class that applies under this legislation.
Toby Guevin, senior policy and civic-engagement manager at immigrants’ advocacy group OneAmerica, said the intent of the bill is not to go against majority rule but to allow more voices to be heard in a majority-rule system. The bill would foster civic engagement among minority populations whose participation is imperative for a representative democracy.
“When people are disenfranchised and when people feel like they don’t have [access to fair elections], it’s very easy to become disengaged,” said Guevin.
Others, including Rep. Maureen Walsh (R- Walla Walla), have called the legislation “reverse discrimination.”
“All Americans have equal opportunity and that’s what this country is all about,” she contended during a House floor debate on March 7. “We perpetuate the prejudice when we continue to drive issues like this.”
The questions this bill raises include: does gerrymandering districts into racial subdivisions push racism further into the twenty-first century?; Or is the Washington Voting Rights Act simply corroborating evidence that polarized voting exists and negatively affects minorities during elections?
Sponsor of the bill, Rep. Luis Moscoso (D-Mountlake Terrace), a first-generation Peruvian American raised in what he calls “white privilege” Iowa, said that skeptics should not just focus on the “race-aspect” of the bill.
“It’s important not only because we want people to be able to vote for folks that can represent their community … but it’s also just about neighborhoods,” he said.
The bill is ready for a House floor vote when the Legislature convenes Jan. 13, 2014.
Information in this article, originally published November 22, 2013, was corrected November 27, 2013. A previous version of this story misstated who was protected by the bill.