The Washington Voting Rights Act is how we can make sure that what happened in Yakima does not happen again.
LAST November, voters in Yakima mailed their ballots in to elect new members of their City Council. For many, a bleak bit of trivia loomed large in their minds as they voted: Despite a population that is more than 40 percent Hispanic, Yakima had never had a single Latino councilmember.
When all the ballots were counted, voters had elected three.
Avina Gutiérrez, Dulce Gutiérrez, and Carmen Méndez were sworn into office on Dec. 9. In a recent meeting, the new council chose Avina Gutiérrez to serve as the city’s mayor. This is the new face of Yakima’s government — a dramatic change in representation that finally reflects the diversity of the community.
This sea change came after years of stagnation, however. Many passionate and well-qualified Latinos had run in Yakima before, only to be rejected at the ballot box. This was true even as recently as 2013, despite the fact that the city’s Hispanic population had quadrupled over the past two decades. So what was so different this time?
For once, the system wasn’t stacked against them.
The truth is that Yakima’s shake-up should have happened a long time ago. 2015 marked the first election where councilmembers were elected to geographic districts rather than citywide. The change came only after a prolonged and expensive federal court case in which the judge found that “Latinos have been denied the equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice in Yakima” under the old system.
Mayor Gutiérrez and Councilmember Méndez joined us in Olympia to share how this change had made it possible for them to succeed where no Latino had previously. At a public hearing on legislation known as the Washington Voting Rights Act, they told us how district elections made it possible to go out and talk to each of their prospective constituents. They spoke about how at-large council seats didn’t reflect many parts of the city that were overwhelmingly communities of color.
Their message was simple, and one that I firmly believe: We can do better here in Washington.
The Washington Voting Rights Act is how we make sure that what happened in Yakima does not happen again. The proposal gives voters and cities a way to fix the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in elected government positions. The bill would provide an easier and swifter path to justice for individuals who have been disenfranchised in their own communities. It would also create an avenue for working out disputes before they go to court and allow legal challenges to be heard in-state rather than decided through federal intervention.
The Voting Rights Act passed the state House earlier this session 50-47 and is scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee chaired by state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner.
And for those keeping track of the balance sheet rather than the arc of the morale universe, the Washington Voting Rights Act would be fiscally responsible policy as well. If the bill had been law last year, there would have been a far less expensive way to resolve the conflict in Yakima.
Minority participation in local government will only increase as Washington’s minority population grows. The only issue remaining is whether we, as a state, want to extend out a hand in support or continue turning a blind-eye to communities facing systemic disenfranchisement.
The results in Yakima are an endorsement of a better way forward. The Washington Voting Rights Act gives us the opportunity to avoid federal lawsuits, save taxpayer dollars and empower communities that have been historically marginalized.
To protect fairness and equality in our democracy, it’s time to pass this civil rights legislation of our era.