The voting-rights bills have rekindled debate in Washington state over efforts to make local elections more hospitable to minority candidates.
Republicans and Democrats have introduced competing voting-rights bills that have rekindled debate over efforts aimed at making local elections more hospitable to minority candidates.
The four bills would remove a 1994 state restriction that prevents most Washington cities from replacing an at-large voting system with district elections.
At-large voting means candidates run citywide for the office. In districted voting, candidates are picked by voters within a smaller geographic area. In Seattle, seven of the nine City Council members are elected by districts while the other two are picked by voters citywide.
The current proposalscome in the wake of a 2012 federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Yakima.
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In that case, a judge found that Yakima’s at-large system violated the federal Voting Rights Act and ordered the city to elect its council members by district, giving the city’s large Latino population a better chance of being represented.
More recently, Pasco officials have pressed for a change in the state law so the city could switch to district voting.
More than half Pasco’s residents are Latino, but only two of the seven City Council members are Latino. They both were initially appointed to the positions — the most recent in October.
Pasco uses a districted system for its primary elections but an at-large system for its general elections. The ACLU sued the city in August, saying the system “impermissibly dilutes the Latino vote.”
The city entered into an agreement with the ACLU, filed in federal court, to start a process to come into compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. A judge on Friday ruled that the agreement, which would change 6 of the 7 City Council seats to districted voting, meets the requirements of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, has introduced two bills — Senate Bill 5067 and SB 5068 — that would allow cities to change voting systems either by enacting an ordinance or by putting the issue on the ballot.
SB 5067 also would set a path for residents to sue cities that have a voting system that undermines the representation of minority communities in elected office.
Under the bill, cities that are presented with census information showing that their system unfairly stifles minority voter representation would have 18 months to make a change. If no change is made, residents could sue the city in state court.
Currently such a suit can be brought only in federal court, under the federal Voting Rights Act — a more costly and time-consuming effort than a lawsuit in state court, advocates on both sides of the issue say.
Miloscia said he hopes the legislation would “bring neighbors together to talk about the issue” before going to the courts, an expensive affair even at the state level.
SB 5068 is similar but doesn’t allow lawsuits against a city in state court.
State Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and state Rep. Gregerson, D-SeaTac, are sponsoring a competing proposal.
In addition to removing 1994 restrictions, SB 5267 and HB 1800, the House companion bill, would give cities eight months to change their voting system, rather than 18 months, after being presented with data showing the need for reform. If no change is made, citizens could sue in state court.
OneAmerica, an immigrant-rights group that has lobbied for a Washington voting-rights act for years, helped develop Hunt’s proposal.
“If there is an electoral system that is excluding their citizens then we believe [the solution] should be quick,” said OneAmerica’s legislative director, Toby Guevin.
Josh Weiss, policy and legislative relations director with the Washington State Association of Counties, spoke against SB 5067 in a recent legislative hearing.
Weiss has said that both SB 5067 and SB 5267 could lead to more voting-rights lawsuits — and potentially more legal costs for local governments.
The 2012 ACLU case against Yakima cost the city roughly $3 million.
“Our costs are growing faster than our revenue and one of those costs is liability,” Weiss said during the hearing. “5067 creates a new cause of action that will be easier and cheaper to bring [lawsuits] in state courts and that is something we have grave concern over.”
The Democrats’ proposals have yet to receive a public hearing.