A bill in the state Legislature could make it easier for minorities to win local government elections in diverse communities.

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OLYMPIA — As immigrant advocates gathered in Olympia on Thursday, state lawmakers took up a bill that could give minorities a better chance at winning election to local government positions.

The legislation would make it easier to bring court challenges aimed at pushing cities, counties and school districts to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.

“Our democracy in a diverse state and a diverse nation should be representative of all communities,” said Rep. Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of the House bill, HB 2612. “Equal opportunity must be there for all.”

According to a 2009 study by Whitman College, Latinos held only 4 percent of elected government positions in 10 Eastern Washington counties where the Latino population totaled 33 percent. Yakima, which is 41 percent Hispanic, has never elected a Hispanic to the seven-member City Council.

Seth Dawson, a researcher for a Whitman College study, said the state’s election process has not only hindered Latino elections but has discouraged Latinos from running and from voting.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director and founder of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, agreed.

“Not only do people not run for office,” Jayapal said in an interview, “but they’re not even going to vote because they don’t think it’ll matter. They’re discouraged.”

Immigrants and immigration advocates packed the hearing room where lawmakers took testimony about the bill. Hundreds of advocates came to Olympia Thursday to meet with lawmakers and rally at the Capitol.

No one testified against the bill Thursday. It’s companion bill in the Senate, SB 6381, is sponsored by Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.

The Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 invites court challenges to an election system that prevents protected minorities from meaningfully influencing election outcomes. Federal courts have in recent years limited the law’s reach by raising the standard to create gerrymandered majority-minority districts.

The Washington legislation would make it easier to prove that such districts are necessary. If passed into law, a plaintiff could use census data and election results to show that an unsuccessful minority candidate for local office would likely win if running in a district made up largely of the person’s minority group.

Such proof could be used to demand a new election, a change from at-large to district-based representation, and payment of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.

OneAmerica members are also hoping to push forward House Bill 2568, also sponsored by Kenney. The bill would prohibit mandatory E-Verify, an Internet-based program run by the federal government and used by employers to electronically verify the immigration status of potential employees.

This story includes material from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives.

Stephanie Kim: 360-236-8266 or skim@seattletimes.com