Last year, Yakima had an historic election. For the first time, in a city with a Latino population of 41 percent, voters finally elected Latina members to the seven-member Yakima city council. This type of fair representation—voters chose three Latinas—was unprecedented (the city had never elected a Latino either.) If that's surprising to you, it shouldn't be. Data collected over years demonstrates Yakima’s racially polarized voting prevented voters from electing candidates who represented their values.
While historic, had the Washington Voting Rights Act been passed when first introduced in 2012 or any of the subsequent years it was introduced, fair representation in Yakima would have been achieved years earlier. It was only after the ACLU sued that Yakima was forced to hold districted elections last year, rather than the at-large elections that had been used to keep Latinos off the city council. The Washington Voting Rights Act would allow communities to move to a system of districted elections at local levels, so voters would have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice, under the principle of “One Person, One Vote.”
We are both longtime advocates for voter equality and access—whether those voters are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. We’re disappointed that voting rights seem to have become a partisan issue in Washington. For the fourth legislative session in a row, the Republican majority in the senate has refused to even bring the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) to a vote on the floor. The Republican senate majority has also refused legislation that would expand access to voting through automatic voter registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Even Republican secretary of state Kim Wyman, who has been supportive of some bills for automatic voter registration, but has been unable to effectively get the legislation passed, does not support the WVRA. Under Secretary Wyman, voter turnout has declined to a dismal 38 percent in the general election and more than one million eligible Washingtonians remain unregistered.
This is particularly notable given the widespread support from editorial boards across the state—from The Seattle Times to the Yakima Herald—who know that our democracy only works if everyone has the ability for their vote to count. The suppression of the Washington Voting Rights Act is an affront to civil rights and immigrant rights groups, who marched on Olympia, as well as to organizations like the League of Women Voters and others who are committed to real democracy.
You should be upset. We know we are.
This election is an opportunity to hold those candidates accountable who are disenfranchising voters and obstructing fair elections. Washington should be a model for voting across the country, aiming for the highest percentage of citizens registered to vote and the highest turnout in the nation. To achieve these goals, we need to change how we conduct elections. Specifically, we believe Washington must:
- Pass the Washington Voting Rights Act. Vetted and perfected for four legislative sessions, the only thing holding up the WVRA is active resistance from the Republican Party.
- Implement Automatic Voter Registration in Washington, joining Oregon and California. This past legislative session, Senator Jayapal introduced SB 6379 into the State Senate after working with voting rights advocates locally and nationally to craft a specific bill that addressed Washington’s unique needs. The bill was not even moved through committee.
- Implement same-day registration, allowing qualified residents to register and vote on Election Day.
- Make mail-in ballots postage-free, as finding and paying for a stamp is just one more unnecessary obstacle to voting.
- Increase the number of drop boxes for urban, suburban, and rural residents, including on university campuses.
We know these changes require funds, but just imagine what the $11.5 million of taxpayer dollars the State Republican Party is spending on their May primary election (Democrats pay for caucuses with party funds), could pay for:
- Four cycles of postage-free voting statewide.
- Voting drop boxes for every 15,000 residents per county.
- Ballot drop boxes on every college campus in the state.
- The administrative costs of same day registration.
It’s time to hold accountable those elected officials who continue to block essential progress on expanding our democracy and fail to provide every eligible resident with that most American of opportunities—the opportunity to vote.
Pramila Jayapal is the state senator from Southeast Seattle's 37th Legislative District, a candidate for the 7th U.S. Congressional District, and founder of OneAmerica
Tina Podolowski is a former Seattle city council member, a candidate for secretary of state, and former Microsoft senior manager.