Washington House passes Voting Rights Act

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OLYMPIA — The state House passed a measure Thursday to reform representation of minorities in local elections, over the objections of Republicans who said that the measure was unnecessary and potentially costly.

The Washington Voting Rights Act passed on a nearly party-line 53-44 vote. Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, joined Republicans in opposing the measure. The bill now heads to the Senate, where its future is uncertain.

The measure allows for minority individuals or groups to seek court-mandated orders to jurisdictions to reform their elections. Those jurisdictions include towns and cities of 1,000 people or more, school districts, fire districts, counties and ports, among others. Among the remedies is shifting from at-large elections to district-based elections to better represent residents.

Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, said the idea of proportional representation is reflective of American democracy.

“When a neighborhood or community cannot elect representation from their locality, then that democracy is not served, and our American dream is diminished,” he said.

One concern raised was that the measure would end up costing cash-strapped school districts money.

“Here’s the one thing we know that’s going to be a result of this law, and that’s lawsuits,” said Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg. “We want to accomplish change, not bankruptcy.”

The push behind the measure is the history of elections in Central and Eastern Washington — specifically Yakima County, where the American Civil Liberties filed a lawsuit last year against the city of Yakima. Forty-one percent of Yakima’s 91,000 residents are Latino, but the city has never elected a Latino member to its at-large city council.

In 2011, council members refused to put an initiative on a special ballot requiring that each of the seven members represent a specific district, and Yakima voters defeated an initiative to change the system in last year’s primary. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court under the federal Voting Rights Act, and the case is still pending.

Several Republican amendments were rejected Thursday, including one seeking to limit lawsuits if redistricting has already occurred, and another that sought to create a bipartisan redistricting committee to redraw districts, instead of a judge-appointed remedy.

Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said she was offended by the implication that she might not represent the interests of her district, which includes a large Hispanic population.

“I feel like I do a very good job representing them,” she said. “I understand that there are issues with civil rights. But I also really think when we continually talk about disproportionality and talk about allowing certain protected classes to change things in our system, maybe we’re taking the wrong approach. I think we perpetuate the prejudice when we continue to drive issues like this.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, of Burien, said he understood that there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue and the measure wasn’t trying to target one part of the state.

“I think there are a lot of things that we need to do back in our home districts to talk to our constituents about how to engage communities that are not as engaged as others,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if there are people that have been trying for decades and decades and decades to see somebody that looks like them in elected office, and they consistently don’t see that, it’s important that there be a remedy.”