Washington House passes Voting Rights Act

Bill that aims to improve minority representation faces resistance in Senate

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OLYMPIA — The Washington state House on Thursday once again passed a measure seeking to reform representation of minorities in local elections, but as in past years, the bill is likely to face resistance in the state Senate.

On a mostly party line 52-46 vote, the Democratic-controlled chamber passed the Washington Voting Rights Act for the third time in as many years.

Known as House Bill 1745, it opens the possibility of court challenges to cities, counties and school districts to push them to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.

Under the measure, before someone can file a legal action, the political entity must be notified of the challenge to their election system, at which point they’ll have 180 days to remedy the complaint.

If a remedy is adopted, no legal action may be brought against the entity for four years.

Rep. Luis Moscoso, a Democrat from Mountlake Terrace who sponsored the bill, said in a written statement after the vote that the state “must ensure that every community has an equal opportunity to make their voice heard in the elections process.”

“When our electoral system disenfranchises any group, it undermines the very core of our democratic society,” he wrote.

At the heart of the measure is the history of elections in central and eastern Washington, where the Hispanic population has grown but minority advocates say representation in local offices remains low.

Last summer, a federal judge ruled that Yakima’s city council elections violate the federal Voting Rights Act, finding that Latinos do not have full participation in the races. Last month, the judge adopted the ACLU’s proposed redistricting plan.

During the floor debate, Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said the measure would be a “litigation nightmare.”

“Is it going to do what we want it to, or is it going to have unintended consequences?” he asked.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats tried to bring a Senate version of the bill to the floor for a vote through a procedural move but were voted down by the Republican majority.