Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, uttered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago Wednesday, was for America to live up to its promise “that all men are created equal.” King was speaking primarily of racial issues, but also more broadly about issues of inequality that affect all people, such as economic inequality, and unequal access to the political system.
Putting an exclamation point on how access to the political system continues to shift and slither since the 1963 March on Washington, the federal Department of Justice filed a lawsuit late last week arguing that a Texas voter identification law would deny the poor equal opportunities to obtain the documents made necessary to vote, thus denying them the right to vote. The DOJ is almost certain to file a similar lawsuit against the state of North Carolina.
Here in the progressive Northwest, we like to think these are Southern issues. But an unsuccessful bill proposed by Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, reminded us that attitudes and actions that support voter exclusion and maintain a lack of diversity in public office exist in our own backyards.
In cities and counties throughout the state, people of color remain largely on the fringes of elected office.
Latinos make up about 41 percent of the city of Yakima’s 91,000 residents, but not one has ever been elected to the City Council. Latinos hold only 4 percent of local elected offices in 10 Central Washington counties, despite making up more than a third of the population.
A study by Whitman College found that although Latinos make up about 50 percent of the populations of Adams and Franklin counties, they hold only eight of 247 publicly elected positions.
Thurston County fares no better. Our population is roughly 7.4 percent Latinos, 3 percent African-Americans and 5.4 percent Asians, yet our elected officials do not reflect that diversity.
The Washington Voting Rights Act proposed by Hunt and Moscoso would enable, even encourage, local jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to small, district-based elections. And, when the evidence is convincing that the system has shut out distinct communities, to give those people redress through the courts.
As a nation, we have not achieved King’s dream and America’s promise. As a state, we have the opportunity in the next legislative session to create equal opportunity and access to all Washingtonians.