IT’S hard to talk about race and politics. But race still matters. And it’s about time we started talking about it.
In nine counties across central Washington, Latinos constitute more than 33 percent of the total population, yet hold less than 4 percent of the local elected offices. Combined, these nine counties elect 69 port commissioners, 66 county officers, 51 judges, and 27 county commissioners. Not a single one is Latino.
Why? Electoral data shows that these local races exhibit a phenomenon called racially polarized voting. This means that in central Washington, white voters tend to vote for white candidates, while Latino voters tend to vote for Latino candidates.
When this phenomenon occurs in an at-large election, minority candidates have almost no chance of winning. Because 99 percent of these local elections are conducted at-large, Latinos in central Washington can’t break through. That’s why Latino candidates have been shut out from school boards, city councils and county commissions.
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Serious problems like this require serious solutions. Fortunately, we have one: the proposed Washington Voting Rights Act, which was introduced last session but failed to gain approval by the state Legislature. The act would allow voters to challenge those at-large voting systems that exhibit racially polarized voting. The remedy would be district-based elections that give minority communities “an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.” Metropolitan King County Council members, for example, are elected based on districts.
We recently saw just how badly we need the act after the state Supreme Court race between Steve Gonzalez and Bruce Danielson.
While Gonzalez raised a record amount of money, Danielson didn’t raise a dime. While Gonzalez crisscrossed the state, securing bipartisan endorsements, Danielson didn’t campaign or conduct a single endorsement interview. While Gonzalez received numerous “Judge of the Year” awards, Danielson was rated not qualified by multiple organizations.
But those of us who study elections knew that Gonzalez had one thing that could weigh him down: his Hispanic surname. So this election became a statewide experiment to see just how much race matters in Washington.
We recently analyzed the precinct-by-precinct returns from the Gonzalez-Danielson race, and overlaid them with demographic patterns. What we found is that in many counties, racially polarized voting distorted the results. In many cases, the distortions were shocking.
For instance, in Yakima County, Danielson received approximately 74.9 percent of the non-Latino white votes, while Gonzalez received only 25.1 percent, even though Gonzalez made campaign appearances in Yakima, ran radio ads there and was endorsed by the Yakima Herald-Republic.
The reverse was true in the Latino community: Gonzalez beat Danielson by more than a 2-to-1 margin among Latinos. We found similarly polarized numbers in other counties, too.
We can’t blame this polarization on partisanship because Gonzalez was endorsed by both parties’ standard-bearers.
Danielson also outperformed every Republican candidate for other offices on the ballot in these counties. For instance, in more than a third of the precincts, Danielson’s margin over Gonzalez was greater than Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna’s lead over Democrat Jay Inslee — by more than 20 points. This means that many white voters who voted for Inslee voted against Gonzalez.
Gonzalez still won the race because populous counties in Western Washington voted heavily for him. But he lost 29 counties, many by more than 20 points. Running countywide or citywide, Latino candidates in Central Washington are struggling against the same racially polarized headwinds that gave Danielson a 20-point win over Gonzalez in Central Washington.
Our data proves what many have suspected for a long time: Race still matters. That’s why we need the Washington Voting Rights Act to provide an equal opportunity for minority candidates. Equality has eluded Latino candidates for too long in Washington. It’s time to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act.
Matt Barreto, left, is associate professor of political science and adjunct professor of law at the University of Washington. David A. Perez is an attorney at Perkins Coie and co-author of the Washington Voting Rights Act.