Washington's redistricting commission should ensure people of color have more influence
Three of the four proposals by members of the Washington State Redistricting Commission propose a congressional district where the majority of residents are people of color. Guest columnists Pramila Jayapal and George Cheung explain why that and other changes are good ideas.
Special to The Times
Washington redistrictingYour chance to be heard
THE WASHINGTON STATE REDISTRICTING COMMISSION is taking comments through Tuesday on proposals for how the state's 2012 legislative and congressional district boundaries should be drawn. To see proposals and weigh in, go to: www.redistricting.wa.gov/
For Martha Chavez, the state's voter-redistricting process is about her children's futures, not just lines on a map. A U.S. citizen who emigrated from Mexico three decades ago, she told us she wanted to testify because "the politicians don't seem to care about me and my kids — they never come to see me or talk about the issues that matter to us and nothing really changes for us."
Based on a 14 percent population growth in the last decade, Washington was one of only eight states to be awarded a new congressional district this year. Most notable was the growth in Washington's immigrant population, including a 70 percent increase in the Latino population statewide and significant increases of diverse communities in Seattle and South King County.
Today, one in four Washington residents is a person of color and one in eight is an immigrant. Latinos constitute 11 percent of the population; Asians, 7 percent; African Americans, 3 percent; and people selecting other races, 5 percent.
These changes afford our first opportunity to create a congressional district where the majority of residents are people of color. There is also an opportunity to create up to two Central Washington legislative districts where most residents are people of color.
Most media and political elites were openly dismissive of this, believing that redistricting has traditionally been a closed-door negotiation between the two political parties — reflected in the composition of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, composed of four voting members who are appointed by minority and majority leadership of the state House and Senate, who together select a fifth nonvoting member.
Undeterred, a coalition of civic organizations and leaders under the banner of United for Fair Representation submitted a "unity map" that drew specific districts to maximize representation for people of color, researched legal issues in the Voting Rights Act for the state legislative district in Central Washington, and launched a massive education campaign to turn people out to almost all of the 18 public hearings across the state.
Our firm belief is that the unity map's districts would consolidate voting power of people of color, push political representatives to pay attention to the issues of marginalized communities of color and spur participation in democracy.
At hearings in North and South Seattle, multiracial youth testified about their dreams and how they wanted to vote for representatives who truly understood their lives. In Central Washington, Latinos who have lived there for decades articulated their sense of isolation and their belief that their votes simply didn't matter.
In South King County, Africans, African Americans and Asians testified about the tremendous common challenges their communities face, as evidenced by the disparity statistics around education and health care.
To everyone's tremendous surprise, three of four commissioners released first-draft maps that included a congressional district and at least one state legislative district in Central Washington with a majority of residents who are people of color.
Republican commissioners Slade Gorton and Tom Huff and Democratic commissioner Tim Ceis made strong and positive statements that reflected their appreciation for people's participation in the process and their belief that there was a real need for this change. Huff's map exactly matched our unity map. No maps had all of our asks reflected but many had some and we will continue to push for as much representation as possible for people of color.
We know backdoor politics is always possible but it is our hope that the three commissioners were reflecting a genuine belief in the fundamentals of fair representation. If they can keep in check fearful incumbents who may be more focused on keeping their own districts safe than in representing a growing and diverse constituency, we may be one step closer to real democracy.
The single lesson for Martha Chavez and the hundreds of people who spoke out is that their voices matter. And the single lesson for both political parties is that the party that embraces diversity is the party of the future.
Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, and George Cheung, executive director of Win-Win Network, are both part of the United for Fair Representation coalition.