The state Legislature must come together and give minority voters the rights they deserve to seek office in their communities.

Share story

ALL communities deserve opportunities to elect public officials who best reflect those communities.

Unfortunately, flaws in our election system often result in elected bodies that do not accurately reflect the communities they represent.

Election processes that result in voter disenfranchisement are illegal. And while there’s ample evidence that these unfair systems exist in our state, it is nearly impossible for local communities to do something about it.

That’s why the state House has passed the Washington Voting Rights Act (VRA) five years in a row. Local communities need more options at their disposal to fix unfair election systems.

The Seattle Times editorial board recently voiced its support for a state voting rights act [“Lawmakers should give Washington a new Voting Rights Act,” Opinion, March 3] and noted the laudable work by legislators to find agreement on a measure that we can get to the governor’s desk.

While we agree with the editorial board’s overall opinion, we take issue with its assertion that the House and Senate bills might lead to more lawsuits.

While that is likely true of the Senate version of the VRA (SB 5067), the House version (HB 1800) will likely result in fewer lawsuits.

A primary goal of the House version of the VRA is to give tools to disenfranchised communities to solve the problem before going to court. The House VRA requires parties come together first, outside of the courtroom, to find fair solutions that work for everyone.

Local governments would be empowered to enact their own local solutions, such as electing members by district, without ever going to court. Lawsuits would only be used as a last resort if other remedies were not successful.

In many localities across Washington, elected officials are chosen using at-large voting systems. At-large voting significantly diminishes the ability of minority groups to gain representation in their local governments.

For example, despite having a Hispanic population of more than 40 percent, Yakima had an at-large voting system where candidates had to run citywide, which meant the city had never elected a Hispanic council member. Its at-large system was ultimately challenged in federal court and replaced with a fairer, district-based system.

What were the results after district-based voting was put in place? Voters elected three Latina council members — a huge win for that community.

The editorial board recognized that different jurisdictions need different solutions to meet their unique needs. We agree, which is why the House bill does not prescribe a particular outcome or solution — instituting district-based elections is only one option. Unlike the Senate bill, the parties can produce the solution that best meets their needs (and a judge will review their work to make sure it is constitutional).

Unfortunately, the Senate one-size-fits-all VRA falls short of providing meaningful solutions and would likely result in more litigation.

It would force communities into one alternative: district-based or a hybrid of at-large and district seats. This could have the effect of one bad voting process being replaced by a worse voting process. And it would force communities to start the replacement process all over again. They’ll have to collect all new data and likely file more lawsuits.

The Senate VRA also falls short because it silences the voices of those being disenfranchised. The Senate bill provides no framework for bringing people together to form a collaborative process for deciding what is best for their community.

This collaboration piece is especially important and is at the heart of the House VRA. Our bill is a result of more than five years of collaborating with various stakeholders. This collaboration must continue to ensure election systems are fair.

Voting is a fundamental right in America. All voices deserve to be heard. Yet too many areas in our state have flaws in their election process that silences some voices.

Republicans and Democrats recognize the problem. The conversation now is about finding the best ways to solve the problem.

While we believe HB 1800 is the best option on the table, we will continue to work across the aisle to find a solution that provides for fair elections, empowers communities and ensures we maintain a strong democracy for all.

Information in this article, originally published March 13, 2017 was corrected March 13, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly indentified State Sen. Sam Hunt as a state representative.