The Washington State Capitol. Taken from The Joel M Pritchard Building. • Photo by Bluedisk
The Washington State Capitol. Taken from The Joel M Pritchard Building. • Photo by Bluedisk

One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is that those we elect into power should represent the people who elect them.

But, what happens when elected officials don’t look anything like the population it represents? Are our voices truly being heard?

For the fourth straight year, the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) is being heard in the Washington state Legislature. The WVRA creates a system of fair representation, making local government more accountable to constituents. Currently, nearly all local elections in Washington use at-large voting systems. As a result, some communities are excluded from a fair chance at electing candidates of their choice. The WVRA will give all communities an equal opportunity to elect officials who represent their needs and interests.

As of this writing, the House bill was scheduled for a committee vote on February 18, while the Senate bill’s vote has yet to be scheduled.

Councilmember Bryan Yambe
Councilmember Bryan Yambe

Last week, Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE) Board member and Fife City Councilmember Bryan Yambe testified before the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee in support of the bill.

“As the son of an immigrant and a third generation American of Japanese descent, I am here on behalf of my family as a living example of the American Dream, of what one can achieve through hard work, perseverance, and what can be accomplished in this great nation,” Bryan said. “You as a committee have a unique opportunity and great power to help extend America’s promise—to help strengthen the experiment of self government, and that power can only be strengthened by extending the opportunity for more to have a voice in governing.”

Bryan represents a city with about half its population identifying as people of color and 19 percent as API, according to the 2010 Census. Yet, Bryan is the first person of color since Bob Mizukami in the late-1980s to be elected onto the Fife Council. In 1991, Bob Yoshioka was appointed and served for six months, and, in 2011, Dee Dee Dukes-Gethers was appointed and served until 2013.

That’s it.

Bryan’s family came to America years ago. For him to sit before a Senate committee exercising his democratic rights and advocating for change is a true testament for what is possible in our democracy.

What people are asking is that they are represented. But the system can be daunting and intimidating.

“Unless you have a model that it can actually be done, you never know that you can,” he said, speaking on behalf of aspiring candidates of color.

Bryan is part of efforts at APACE that are focused on working to get more Asians/Pacific Islanders elected into office, to truly represent a considerably underrepresented population.

While this bill focuses on local elections, a look at representation in the state Legislature offers a snapshot of representation in Washington. There are 147 total seats in the state Legislature—49 in the Senate, and 98 in the House. Of those, just 13 are held by people of color—five in the Senate, and eight in the House.

That amounts to 9 percent of the Legislature, compared to 29 percent of the total state population comprised of people of color.

Washington State Senate
Cyrus Habib (Iranian)
Bob Hasegawa (API)
Steve Hobbs (API)
Pramila Jayapal (API)
John McCoy (Native)

Washington State House
Mia Gregerson (API)
Jeff Morris (Native)
Luis Moscoso (Latino)
Lillian Ortiz-Self (Latina)
Eric Pettigrew (Black)
Cindy Ryu (API)
Sharon Tomiko Santos (API)
Brady Walkinshaw (Latino)

There is evidence that giving localities the ability to conduct district elections—as opposed to at-large—would level the political playing field for people of color. Research by Jason Malinowski as part of a capstone project at the University of Washington Bothell found that the average cost for a candidate to win a city council seat is expected to decrease by $75,000 if moving to district elections.

The research also found that candidates of color, on average, spend $17,000 less than white candidates, “suggesting differential access to campaign funds.”

Through the passage of the WVRA, candidates of color would face a lower bar and a more level playing field in a given campaign.

This issue is a simple one for communities of color: We elect individuals to represent us in decision-making bodies. We must demand a system that creates the conditions for fair and genuine representation.

The Washington Voting Rights Act is scheduled for State Government Committee vote on February 18. If you want to weigh in on this issue, contact your legislator here: http://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/.

WASHINGTON VOTING RIGHTS ACT

HB 1745: Enacting the Washington voting rights act
Scheduled for State Government Committee vote on Feb. 18
http://app.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1745&year=2015

SB 5668: Enacting the Washington voting rights act
http://app.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5668&year=2015

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