OLYMPIA – The Washington State House of Representatives recently passed the Washington Voting Rights Act by a 52-46 vote. This is the sixth time that the House has passed the Voting Rights Act, but the first time that the House is taking action on a bill that has already passed the Senate.
According to supporters, The Washington Voting Rights Act would allow communities that are systemically disenfranchised in local government elections to work collaboratively with their local governing bodies to adjust their elections through local remedies such as districted systems. This act focuses on a collaborative process rather than litigation, which currently is the only path to relief under the Federal Voting Rights Act. If this collaborative process fails, communities can then seek relief in state court.
“People should reasonably expect their elected bodies to reflect the populations of those who elected them,” said Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, prime sponsor of the House version of the bill, HB 1800. “The Washington Voting Rights Act is a response to communities and local governments asking for tools to remove barriers without costly lawsuits in an effort to successfully work towards a more fair and balanced governing body.”
In 2012, two Yakima Latino citizens claimed the City of Yakima’s election system unlawfully diluted the Latino vote, and it did not allow for equal participation by Latinos in the election process. Yakima voters had never elected a Hispanic or Latino city councilmember despite having a population of nearly 40 percent Hispanic or Latino. A federal court agreed with the citizens, and ordered Yakima to draw districts for its city council elections, instead of relying on at-large seats.
After Yakima changed its election system, three Latina citizens won elections to the city council – it was the first time any Latino citizen had been elected to the city council.
“Underrepresented voters will have a stronger, more meaningful voice in the government closest to them, and they’ll be empowered to elect leaders that best reflect their identity, issues and values,” Gregerson said.
By empowering the people and their local leaders to work together to fix the problem, it will lower costs for local governments and taxpayers. Municipalities that make meaningful change would be protected from future lawsuits.
The measure now moves back to the Senate for concurrence.