by Sarah Goh
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The 2020 census, administered under President Trump, was plagued with concerns over suppression, exclusion, and proper representation — especially of immigrants and Black and Native communities. In response to these concerns, 92 Washington tribes and organizations came together to ensure that all communities were counted through a relational organizational campaign.
As a result, the 2020 census counted more people in Washington than ever before. In fact, the state led the nation with the second-highest census response rate.
This coalition, formed to ensure a just census count, became the Washington Community Alliance (WCA), a network of organizations of color working together to promote a multiracial democracy in Washington State.
“If we wanted a multiracial democracy, we needed to be counted in it first,” WCA Dir. Kamau Chege said.
Thanks in part to WCA’s efforts, the 2020 census determined Washington State’s racial makeup to be 63.8% white, 13.7% Latino, 9.4% Asian, 3.8% Black, 1.2% Native, and 0.8% Pacific Islander.
With this new, more accurate information, and in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests for racial justice, the WCA was curious to determine whether local and state elected leaders reflect existing demographics.
Chege says when they couldn’t find that data, WCA conducted a study of Washington State’s representation among legislators, county councils, and prosecutors and the results were alarming.
“We had a sense of underrepresentation,” Chege said. “But the results at the state and local level were really abysmal.”
White people were overrepresented in all of the elected offices in Washington. WCA found that county councils and commissions are 99% white and 75% male. In addition, Washington’s prosecutors are 97% white and 87% male.
“Our research validates what so many people feel,” Chege said. “Our politicians don’t represent the people.”
Chege says that these disparities throughout elected offices within the state point to structural problems.
“When you have disparities at this level, it’s not an accident,” Chege said, citing a history of voter disenfranchisement and suppression. “It’s actually a structural problem.”
Today, the WCA is working to break down these structural problems by advocating against single-choice elections and winner-take-all districts. Chege says these are the two problems that are currently perpetuating a flawed system.
Instead of single-choice elections, where voters are only allowed to vote for one candidate, the WCA is advocating for ranked-choice voting.
“People naturally have orders of preference for different candidates,” Chege said. “And they want to be able to rank their choices.”
Ranked-choice elections have been proven to elect more women and People of Color in comparison to single-choice elections where communities of color are often pitted against each other, Chege says.
This year, ranked-choice voting is being considered in both Clark and San Juan counties in Washington State.
Aside from single-choice voting, the WCA is also advocating against districts that award the winning candidate total representation. Single-member districts give 100% of the representation to candidates who may win by just 51% of the vote. This can create disproportionate representation within a district. As a result, the WCA is supporting multimember districts where more than one candidate can represent a district.
When asked what individuals can do to address these structural voting problems, Chege says there’s a role for everyone.
“People broadly really do believe in a representative democracy,” Chege said. “Educate yourself about the structural barriers to proportional representation and support policymakers and councilmembers who want to lift the ban off of rank-choice voting and proportional representation.”
Chege says that their research draws attention to the community’s need to close the representation gap.
“We hope that this [research] being public and interactive will mean that anyone anywhere doesn’t have to wait for permission,” Chege said. “They can go out there and tackle this disproportionate representation wherever they are in their communities.”
To browse Washington Community Alliance’s research by county or city, access it through WCA’s Washington Elected Officials Demographics Project website.
Editors’ Note: This story was corrected on 05/02/2022 to reflect that San Juan County, along with Clark County, are considering whether or not to use ranked-choice voting.
Sarah Goh is a Singaporean American journalist who graduated from the University of Washington with a dual-degree in biology and journalism. At the intersection of community, science, and humanities, she hopes to elevate marginalized voices and explore the overlooked and unexpected through her writing. Find her at sarahsgoh.com or @sarahsgoh.
📸 Featured Image: “We Want to Live” rally held in South Seattle on June 7, 2020. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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