A Voting Rights Act for Washington is long overdue. The act would help ensure all neighborhoods receive fair representation in their local governments.
Civil-rights groups should not have to file lawsuits to ensure elected city governments reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.
Yet that remains the reality in many places throughout Washington state, due to a state law that bars most cities and towns from electing council members by geographic district. In the extreme, this prohibition can lead to all members of a city council coming from a single well-connected neighborhood. At times, the law has made it difficult for people of color — including concentrated communities of immigrants who have become citizens — to elect candidates of their choice.
Lawmakers can finally solve this problem by enacting the Washington Voting Rights Act, a bill that has languished for years in a politically divided Legislature.
The consequences of the status quo are proven and real. For years, the requirement that all council positions be elected citywide in general elections put Latino candidates at a disadvantage in city council races in Yakima and Pasco, even though Latino residents made up about one-third of the voting-age citizens in each city.
Only after the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed lawsuits accusing the cities of violating the federal Voting Rights Act did the Pasco and Yakima councils switch to district-based elections. After making the change, Yakima elected its first three Latina council members in 2015. Last year, Pasco voters had more Latino council candidates to consider than ever before, adding two to the council in the fall.
While Yakima fought the ACLU lawsuit — racking up legal fees of $3 million — Pasco welcomed the legal challenge, seeing it as a much-needed opportunity to change its election system.
But there should be an easier way for cities to voluntarily move to electing council members by district, without the cost and delay of a federal lawsuit. A state voting rights act would provide that. The measure would let cities adopt their own district-based voting systems to prevent or remedy violations of residents’ voting rights. That’s a much cheaper option than pursuing a federal court order to override the outdated state law.
Democrats, who now control both chambers of Washington’s Legislature, should not waste any time in passing this important legislation.
All neighborhoods deserve fair representation in their local governments.
It is beyond time for the Legislature to make sure that happens.