In 2014, when voters considered a Clark County charter, The Columbian argued editorially that having councilors elected by district “would increase diversity of opinion and would better represent the public.” In other words, officials chosen from a particular district rather than in a countywide vote are better able to respond to the needs of their constituents.
That premise should hold true as legislators consider the Washington Voting Rights Act, a bill that deserves quick passage. The proposal would make it easier for cities or counties or school districts to select representatives by geographic district rather than through at-large votes that codify the tyranny of the majority. To demonstrate the difference, since passage of the county charter, four council positions are selected by district, while the position of chair is a countywide vote; in Vancouver, each voter has a say in all seven council seats.
Under state law, most cities and towns are barred from having officials elected by district. The result of this outdated prohibition has been — in some cases — costly and time-consuming lawsuits. In Yakima, the city spent $3 million fighting a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to overturn an at-large voting system that disenfranchised minority voters.
Opposition to the suit was futile, and Yakima elected its first three Latina council members in 2015 after changing to district elections. In Pasco, a legal challenge was welcomed as an opportunity to better represent the community, and last year the city elected two Latino councilors.
This is not to say that electing minority candidates is inherently beneficial. But if those elections better reflect the demographics of a city, there is value to be found in them. In a hypothetical example, under at-large voting, three or four people from a single well-connected neighborhood could control an entire city council — diminishing the diversity of opinion and poorly representing many areas of the city.
The Washington Voting Rights Act would not require cities or counties or school boards to adopt voting by district; it would simply smooth the path for jurisdictions to do so. This is particularly important in areas with large minority populations who long have been left out of the process, but the issue transcends race. For example, in Vancouver, the east portion of the city long has been underrepresented on the city council, often resulting in what many citizens believe is a lack of attention for their concerns and needs. (Bill Turlay is the only current member who resides east of Andresen Road.) As the League of Women Voters of Clark County writes in support of the bill: “Local democracy is strongest when everyone is engaged and has an opportunity to have their voice heard.”
Various versions of the bill have been considered in recent years but have not garnered adequate support. Now, it is essential for Democrats in Olympia to avoid the same kind of tyranny the proposal hopes to mitigate. Although Democrats now have control of both chambers in the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, they would be wise to build some measure of bipartisan support rather than unilaterally bring the measure to fruition.
That will not be an easy sell, but Republicans who believe in the foundations of democracy and who often laud local control should be able to see the wisdom in the Washington Voting Rights Act. We encourage legislators of both parties to recognize the importance of the act and to help government become more representative of all constituents.