By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Majority minority districts will lead to more civic participation in communities of color,” said Cherry Cayabyab, project director of United for Fair Representation, which is a coalition that works through the Win/Win Network to push for, among other things, a 10th congressional district that is made up primarily of people of color.
“Minorities have traditionally been disenfranchised in the voter process,” continued Cayabyab. “With redistricting, the communities could potentially get a chance to elect someone to champion their issues and needs. I think the community will get excited about who these candidates are and will go out to the polls and vote.”
The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, and one of the main purposes of the U.S. census is to use the data collected to divide 435 House seats among 50 states. Each state gets at least one representative. The rest are divided on the basis of population. In 2011, as its population increased, Washington state gains a 10th seat.
This process, which occurs every 10 years, coinciding with the Census, is called redistricting. New map lines and district boundaries are drawn to make sure there are the same number of people in each district.
Washington state has 6,724,540 people, according to the 2010 Census. The ideal size of each congressional district in Washington state is 672,454. The ideal size of each legislative district — Washington has 49, each of which elects a Senator and two Representatives — is 137,235.5.
The Washington State Redistricting Commission, established in 1983, draws maps for congressional and state legislative districts. The commission includes two Democrats and two Republicans as voting members and a non-voting, nonpartisan chair. The commission is made up of four males and one female.
These members are appointed every 10 years and cannot run for office for two years thereafter.
The 2010 Census shows that people of color now make up 27 percent of Washington state’s population, with higher concentrations in King County (35 percent) and Yakima County (52 percent).
According to The Seattle Times, the Puget Sound region has seen minorities grow by 59 percent over the last decade, with the most drastic changes occurring in South King County. Tukwila, SeaTac, Renton, and Kent now have more minorities than non-Hispanic whites. Generally, the Eastside, Southend, and Northend have seen larger increases in its minority populations than Seattle.
The Voting Rights Act
Redistricting has to comply with the Voting Rights Act, a federal law that prohibits discriminatory voting practices. It ensures that people of color have equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choosing. It ensures that parts of districts are not physically separated. It ensures that boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities that have common interests are respected and their division minimized. It ensures that incumbents, candidates, and political parties are not discriminated against.
Redistricting affects communities of color because communities can get split up by district boundaries. One example is Renton, which is split up into the 8th and 9th Districts.
“We want to make sure that through this redistricting process, there are districts that give communities of color opportunities to elect someone who will be more accountable to them, who will champion issues and causes that these communities care about. For instance, comprehensive immigration reform,” said Cayabyab.
At a June 13 public forum, held at North Seattle Community College, Herdeep Rikli, a Seattle resident and OneAmerica board member, urged the commission to create a people of color congressional district in South Seattle. He spoke of the relatively high number of Sikhs who live in the Southend.
“The Sikh community in Western Washington is mostly focused around Kent and Renton,” Rikli said. “In that small area, [there are] three gurdwaras, places of worship, and close to 6,000 to 7,000 Sikh families. … I think, by not separating that group, their voice can be heard easier and they can hold their representatives accountable for their decisions. It would also create an opportunity to help this community become more civically engaged.”
Diluting a minority community’s voting power by splitting the minority community into two or more districts, so that the minority community does not constitute a significant portion of any district, is called cracking.
“I think that one big issue is what’s going on in Yakima,” said Cayabyab. “The Latino community is split into three legislative districts. Our proposal would create a majority Latino district in Yakima. … [It’s important] to make sure the votes of communities of color aren’t being diluted and that they’re being empowered to participate in the civic process.”
Cayabyab points out that there is potential for litigation if Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is violated. Section 2 protects against minority vote dilution.
Keeping communities intact
Currently, central Orange County in California is undergoing a bit of controversy because the latest maps of Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s congressional district show Little Saigon split in half. Sanchez’s new district now has far fewer Vietnamese American voters than it had previously. Vietnamese Americans typically vote Republican and have argued that their voice has been diluted.
To prevent cracking in Washington state, United for Fair Representation has put forth proposals that it is urging citizens to sign and forward to the commission.
“We’re focusing on seven areas. Our main focus is proposing a new 10th congressional district that includes a majority of people of color,” said Cayabyab. “We’re also proposing that in Central Washington, Yakima and Tri-Cities be kept together in one congressional district because they’re similar communities of interest.”
“On the legislative level, we have five legislative district proposals,” added Cayabyab. “In King County, we have three proposals for majority minority districts. In Pierce County, one legislative district. Same for Yakima.”
In order to help make decisions on redistricting, the state commission has held about 18 public forums across Washington state in the past two months. Its last forum was held on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at New Holly Gathering Hall in South Seattle.
At the public forums, while most citizens expressed support for creating districts where the majority of people are people of color, there were some who said they feared the process is a form of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a practice that creates a political advantage for a particular political party or group through the manipulation of geographic boundaries.
Yemane Gebremicael, an Ethiopian American who has lived in Seattle for 17 years, doesn’t see it that way.
“As you can see, there are only two Africans here this evening,” said Gebremicael at the June 13 forum.
“I’ve been trying to speak to my friends to tell them that this is very important. They could not believe that there can be any effort for such kind of inclusion, for this kind of encouragement and promotion, of representation, this kind of involvement. They could not believe. It is very sad. [And it] makes [the commission’s] job very compelling, I think. I try to say to [my friends], ‘This is not a handout. This is a right.’ I tried to give them an example, and the simplest example I could give was the fact that this country started out as a 13-state country. It was the principle of inclusion, the principle of representation that has made it grow from 13 states to 50 states. And this principle is inherent in the democracy of this country. People must understand this.”
By mid-September, the commissioner’s plans for the congressional and legislative districts will be released, which is followed by a two-week public comment period. By Nov. 1., the plans will be complete.
The new lines will be adopted by January 2012, with the possibility of amendment in February. ♦
For more information or to sign a petition in support of United for Fair Representation’s efforts, visit www.fairrepresentationwa.org. To send a comment to the Washington State Redistricting Commission, visit www.redistricting.wa.gov/contact.asp.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.