More than 400 people -- including about 100 from Eastern Washington -- crowded the Washington Legislative Building rotunda Thursday to support immigrant rights.
The citizens, mostly Washington immigrants, held up signs that read: Protect Citizenship. Support Access to Education. Preserve Medical Interpreters.
Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of OneAmerica, an immigrant, civil and human rights advocacy group, told Washington immigrants to voice their concerns to legislators.
"Your legislators work for you," Jayapal said. "Therefore, you are powerful."
High on OneAmerica's agenda is the Washington Voting Rights Act, which creates a system for minority groups to seek equal voting opportunity reform. The act is modeled after the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In most local elections, voters in a district decide who will be their officials. This "at large" election process guarantees that candidates with majority support win.
Matt A. Barreto, political science professor at the University of Washington, gave an example at Thursday's hearing on why this could be a problem: If elections for district representatives were opened up to voters all across Washington, then King County, with its larger population, could decide who represents smaller districts, like the ones that include Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.
At the local level, a city may have several council member seats, but they all represent the same majority and no minorities within the district, Barreto said.
The Washington Voting Rights Act would allow for the division of voting districts in order to give minority groups an equal opportunity to be represented by their choice of officials.
Zachary Duffy told lawmakers his research project at Whitman College in Walla Walla shows that Latinos are underrepresented across the state.
His study examined 10 counties with the highest Latino populations in Washington, including Benton and Franklin counties. Of 2,000 local government positions, fewer than 5 percent were held by Latinos even though the Hispanic population in those counties range from 15 to 55 percent.
Racism does not explain this underrepresentation, Barreto said. Instead, the voting system does not provide equal opportunity for minorities, he said.
But state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, told the Herald the current voting system works. It has some problems, he said, but the Washington Voting Rights Act would create more.
"I see their point of view," Haler said, "but I think they're carrying it too far."
Haler said the act could be viewed as unconstitutional is it creates a system for minority groups to unfairly elect officials based on race or class.
Haler said representing everyone in his district is a challenge, blessing and opportunity. Some groups will always feel underrepresented, he said.
He contends redistricting in the Tri-Cities has greatly improved representation. He said town hall meetings keep lawmakers in touch with their community. He's held more than 100 in his eight years in office.
And citizens are always welcome to come to his local office and voice their opinions, he said.
The House Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs has yet to vote to move the bill on the voting act to the House for deliberation.
Some people at the rally met with Haler later on Thursday, asking him to improve English as a Second Language education programs in public schools.
Haler told the Herald he is looking at the programs, but did not have any specific changes to propose at this time.
w Eric Francavilla, a Herald intern from Washington State University, can be reached at eric.francavilla@ email.wsu.edu.