After turning out in record numbers to help re-elect President Barack Obama last fall, Latino voters are in the spotlight as changemakers in politics. But for all their rising influence at ballot boxes, in many places, Latinos remain conspicuously absent from ballots themselves. That's especially true in Skagit County, Wash., where Latinos comprise 17 percent of the population but hold no public offices. No Latinos serve on any of the seven school boards; none are on any of the town or city councils.
Some Latino community leaders point to an election system that allows the majority outside of a district to choose that district's representatives, and a lack of examples of Latino elected officials as reasons.
"There's a whole group of citizens that are on the fringes of being represented," said Gustavo Ramos, executive director of the Skagit County Housing Authority and organizer of the county's Latino Chamber of Commerce. "... (I'm) not faulting anybody that's in elected office now, but it's a matter of having a complete understanding of your community you're representing. Some of us who are Latino who were born in this country have an understanding of this culture and this country but have a cultural understanding (as well)." A growing population
Latinos account for most of the population growth in Skagit County. About 6 of every 10 new people in the county in the past decade were Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census.
By 2010, Skagit County had 71 percent more Hispanic or Latino people than in 2000. In the same time period, the amount of people not in that group grew by just 6 percent.
In Mount Vernon especially, the numbers stand to increase with the next generation. About half the students in the school district are Hispanic. It is by far the highest proportion of Hispanic students in any district west of the Cascade Mountains, said Mount Vernon School Board President Robert Coffey.
However, no one on the school board is Hispanic.
Coffey said no Latinos have applied for the past few vacancies on the board, but he hopes some do in the future.
"I think that that's probably one of the areas that's more needed right now because that's the future of our society," Ramos said.
Latinos are underrepresented in city government, too. Mount Vernon has the county's highest Latino population -- in one neighborhood the census measures, they're a comfortable majority -- but not one City Council member is Latino.
Although some Latinos in Skagit County are migrant or seasonal workers, and some cannot run for office because they are undocumented, these groups do not comprise the entire Latino population here. Plenty are eligible, but none are elected.
"Skagit deserves to have leaders that represent the diversity of the community," said Sarah Bishop, a Skagit County organizer for OneAmerica, a nonprofit focused on empowering immigrant communities. "... We hope that in the future, the children growing up in Skagit will see representatives in the government that share their experiences and background."
City councils typically have members from particular portions of the city, usually called wards, plus one at-large member who represents the city as a whole.
Except in Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley, these representatives are elected not only by their wards, but by the entire city. The board of county commissioners works this way, too: Each district votes on its own candidates in the primary, then the whole county elects all the commissioners.
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