Washington state lawmakers have a chance to pass legislation that boosts minority representation on school boards, city councils and other local government jurisdictions. This is important in parts of the state where large populations of minority voters live but still find their political voice is diluted by the majority.
Last week – on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March 7 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama – the state House voted narrowly to pass the measure, which sponsors are calling the Washington Voting Rights Act.
House Bill 1745 is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Luis Moscoso of Mountlake Terrace and builds on the 1965 national act that sought to remove impediments faced by black voters in the Deep South. Sen. Cyrus Habib, a Democrat from Kirkland, is backing a similar measure, SB 5668.
The bills give local governments a way to level the playing field for minority candidates by allowing district elections rather than at-large votes. Importantly, the proposal gives local governments a way out of costly, protracted legal fights like one playing out today in Yakima, which eventually could cost the city well over $3 million in legal fees.
In a court case decided last summer, a federal judge ruled that Yakima city council elections violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Judge Thomas Rice found the city’s hybrid system of at-large and district elections had suppressed the interests of Latino voters.
Yakima has 91,000 residents, 41 percent of whom are Hispanic, yet voters there have never elected a Hispanic candidate to the council. The city council has four members representing districts, but those candidates run for election by district only in the primary and are selected citywide or at-large during general elections.
In his ruling that will lead to district elections, Judge Rice wrote: “In the final analysis, there is only one rational conclusion to be drawn from the undisputed evidence recounted above: that the non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino minority.”
Rice added: “In reaching this conclusion, the Court does not mean to suggest that non-Latinos are deliberately conspiring to outvote their Latino colleagues, or that the City has engaged in any wrongdoing.’’
The benefit of the legislation is this: It opens the door for state court challenges that could resolve issues well before trial. It has exemptions for the smallest cities and school districts.
The House version provides a 180-day window for a local government to remedy the situation, and if they do so, no legal action could be taken against the local government for four years.
But if corrective steps were not taken, a court could order redistricting. Opponents have claimed the measures could encourage litigation.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers are polarized on the issue. HB 1745 passed in the House on a nearly party-line vote of 52 to 46; Only Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, crossed over to vote with the majority.
In the Senate, Habib’s bill passed in the Government Operations and Security Committee, but majority Republicans balked last week at pulling it out of the Rules Committee for a vote.
We encourage the Senate to give a floor vote – and ultimately pass – this proposal into law.