Racial bias a factor in Washington Supreme Court election, research finds

Sep 26, 2012

Racial bias did play a role in the primary election battle between Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez and his challenger Bruce Danielson.

That’s the conclusion of research conducted by Matt Barreto, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington.

In the August primary, Justice Gonzalez was re-elected to the court by an overwhelming margin. But in some areas of the state, Danielson, who didn’t even campaign, drew a surprisingly high number of votes.

The suspicion has been that race played a factor, that many voters passed over the Hispanic name of Gonzalez to choose Danielson because he was white. 

Barreto, who reviewed voting patterns in every precinct in the state, says the evidence proves that was true.

“What we found was that in central and eastern Washington, in particularly in Yakima and Grant counties, that there was a very high degree of racial bloc voting. That meant that in very heavily white precincts Danielson did exceptionally well winning as much as 75 percent of the vote," Barreto said.

And Barreto says it wasn’t just whites who voted in a bloc. In heavily Hispanic precincts in Yakima, Gonzalez garnered as much as 70 percent of the vote.

Justice Gonzalez says whether he wins or loses votes because of his Hispanic heritage, he finds racial block voting disturbing.

“Frankly I want voters to know the candidate they’re voting for and vote because of that candidates qualifications not because of their reaction to a last name,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez says the fact that voters pamphlets weren’t put out for the primary in most counties made it difficult for people to really learn about the candidates before casting their ballot.

Here is Barreto's press release announcing the results of his research:

In Central Washington, the most successful candidate of the August 7th primaries was not Rob McKenna the Republican gubernatorial hopeful. Nor was it Michael Baumgartner, Maria Cantwell’s Republican challenger for the U.S. Senate. It was Bruce Danielson, the Kitsap County attorney challenging Justice Steve González for a spot on the State Supreme Court.

While González spent more than $300,000 on his campaign, made campaign stops in Yakima, and was endorsed by the Yakima Herald, his opponent Danielson beat him 64% to 36% in Yakima County. Yet Danielson raised and spent $0 on his campaign and made no visits to Yakima. What’s more, Yakima County – like almost all counties – did not print a voter guide with candidate statements or information for voters to review.

So how did Danielson win 64% of the vote when he made no appearances and spent no money? After all, McKenna, the Republican candidate for Governor who campaigned vigorously in Central Washington won just 50% of the vote in Yakima County.

Subsequent statistical analysis of the August primary election results strongly supports the hypothesis that racial voting bias distorted the González-Danielson race in certain Washington counties. Even when controlling for an ideological split, voters in Yakima, Grant and many counties across the state who were not provided an informational pamphlet, greatly preferred Danielson over González.

In a new report, researchers at UW detail precinct-by-precinct results of the August primary election to show where Danielson did best, and why.  Full report available here: http://faculty.washington.edu/mbarreto/papers/gonzalez_primary2012.pdf