Washington needs a new Voting Rights Act to help all voices be heard in local elections.
WASHINGTON is a few steps closer to a new Voting Rights Act this legislative session, but neither proposal moving through the Legislature is a perfect way to give minority voters the rights they deserve in their communities.
Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers have expressed a willingness to work together. Secretary of State Kim Wyman has said she wants to help facilitate the discussion toward a compromise. They should all be commended for trying to make sure voters in Washington have a fair chance at local government representation.
Democracy is stronger when all voices are clearly heard. But since 1994, all but 10 of Washington’s cities have been prohibited from substantially changing the way they count votes in their local elections.
The main problem with both proposals, House Bill 1800 and Senate Bill 5068, is that they might lead to more lawsuits against local governments. Lawsuits can help change discriminatory practices, but so can better laws.
Both Pasco and Yakima are moving toward more fair local election systems because of effective lawsuits. Before voting-rights suits in those cities, Latino citizens found it nearly impossible to gain representation on their city councils even though they make up about a third of the voting-age population.
The problem in Pasco, and other small cities, is that people in local elections choose their candidates by district in primary elections, but the final choices are made in the general election by voters in the entire city.
Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell says a state law that would allow all Washington cities to change to a district voting system, instead of at-large voting, would be a good first step toward updating discriminatory systems. Both proposals seem to do that.
But, he adds, fixing election systems takes more than just allowing voting by district. “The problem is much more complicated than most people realize,” in part because every city is different, Zabell said.
Pasco spent nearly $500,000 to restructure its local election system under the guidance of a federal judge with help from political scientists, a demographer and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which sued Pasco for the change. The results are better — and probably more fair — than the city would have accomplished on its own, according to Zabell. He thinks the lawsuit actually helped perfect the process.
Voting-rights legislation is complex and important. Getting it right, without leading to unintended consequences and unnecessary lawsuits, is going to be a heavy lift. The Legislature should finally make it easier. Good luck getting it right.