The Washington Voting Rights Act ensures minorities are not left on the sidelines of local elections.
A VIBRANT democracy should ensure that Washington’s minorities have a voice in local elections.
The status quo does not guarantee this right, as evidenced by the lopsided representation in local governments from Snohomish County to the Eastern Washington cities of Yakima, Pasco and Sunnyside.
Though large Latino populations reside in those communities, the vast majority of elected positions for municipal and city governments seats are occupied by white lawmakers.
Blame the election system for this inequity.
Legislators can make a difference during this special session by passing the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), a measure that made it through the state House and a Senate committee during the regular session. A work session last Thursday kept ESHB 1745 alive, but the Senate Rules Committee so far refuses to schedule a vote on the floor.
The Senate has shown leadership on the budget and on other major issues, including support for raising the gas tax to fund a transportation plan. So it should have no problem giving a meaningful civil-rights measure a full airing.
Legislative action beats the alternative, which is more lawsuits and legal costs at the expense of taxpayers and, worse, disenfranchisement of a significant block of voters.
Such costs could be prevented if the Legislature would enact the state Voting Rights Act, which encourages groups of voters and local jurisdictions to negotiate changes and offer solutions before going to court. Once an agreement is reached — that jurisdiction would be safe from additional lawsuits for four years, and it wouldn’t face attorney fees incurred during the negotiations.
The act applies to elections of seats in counties, cities and towns (with a population of more than 1,000 residents), school districts (with more than 250 students), fire, port and public utility districts.
Imagine if this system had been in place when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the City of Yakima in 2012.
Three years later, Yakima leaders are continuing an ill-advised fight against a federal judge’s order to replace the city’s at-large elections with district elections that will include two majority-Latino districts. The ruling was based on “a clear pattern of white voters suppressing Latino interest in previous elections,” according to a Yakima Herald-Republic report.
The cost to Yakima taxpayers of propping up this faulty election system? More than $981,000.
Passage of the Voting Rights Act would alter state law and allow any jurisdiction to convert to district elections on their own. Pasco officials have signaled they are ready to do this.
State legislators should help that effort, avoid litigation and address the very real concerns of voters of color.