Professor to discuss racial polarization at polls

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerMay 12, 2011 

Seattle University law professor Joaquin G. Avila said he has seen voting becoming more racially polarized since the election of America's first black president.

But the voting rights expert also said he believes racial polarization can be diminished at the local level by having city council members or school board members elected by geographic districts rather than at-large.

Avila will visit the Tri-Cities on Friday for the monthly meeting of the Tri-City Democrats, which is open to the public, to talk about ways to politically integrate the many racial, ethnic and cultural communities in the United States.

He also will talk about the obstacles to integration and how to overcome those obstacles.

He pointed to racially polarized voting -- or voting along racial lines -- as one of the biggest obstacles to America becoming the "melting pot" envisioned by many during the nation's history.

Minimizing racial polarization wouldn't necessarily mean that black voters always elect black candidates, or Latino voters elect Latino candidates, but that they have choices and can elect the candidates that best represent them regardless of race, he said.

"If there were not racial polarizing, Latinos could be electing their preferred candidates, who may or may not be Latino," he said. "But we also have to have Latino candidates running."

He said one way to level the playing field for minority candidates is to hold local government elections by districts -- meaning elected officials that represent smaller chunks of the population instead of a city or school district at-large.

That would bring government closer to the people and give the people better access to their elected officials, he said.

"I think what it does is there's a greater accountability," Avila said. "If I'm living in a district, I can go to my elected representative and that person will be responsive, or should be, whereas if it's at-large, I don't know who to go to. I can go to the city council and make a presentation, but it doesn't have the same impact."

Locally, the Pasco City Council has five members who are elected by district and two at-large members, but has talked about moving to a system of more at-large members.

The Kennewick City Council has six members elected by district and one at-large member.

All seven members of the Richland and West Richland city councils are at-large.

Using districts also can mean, in theory, that neighborhoods with solid blocks of minorities might be more likely to have minority candidates and elected officials, although that doesn't always play out in the real world.

The nine Latino candidates who have run for Pasco City Council in 15 races since 1989 all lost to non-Latino candidates, according to a 2008 study by Whitman student Tim Shadix.

Nonetheless, Avila believes it's a goal worth striving for.

"The basic message is we're all in this together," he said. "We need to make sure we are harnessing and utilizing and developing all of our resources, and that includes human resources. When we have communities within our midst that are excluded from participating and equal opportunities, it is a recipe for social disaster."

The meeting starts with a pot luck dinner at 6 p.m. Friday at the Richland Labor Hall, 1305 Knight St., with Avila's talk to start at 7 p.m.

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