Washington Senate panel hears voting rights bill

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OLYMPIA — A Washington state Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday on legislation to make it easier for minorities to get elected to local government posts.

The Washington Voting Rights Act, as supporters call it, would encourage court challenges to cities, counties, school districts and others to push them to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.

Sen. Pam Roach, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee, said it was not likely the bill would advance from her panel.

"It's a long reach," she said, noting that her committee consists of four Republicans and three Democrats. "These haven't traditionally been Republican issues."

The measure passed the state House earlier this month, where all but one Democrat voted in favor and Republicans unanimously voted in opposition.

Proponents of the bill say that Washington state's minority groups, and in particular Hispanics, are badly underrepresented at the local level.

"Sometimes election systems may inadvertently prevent communities from having representation," said Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, the House bill's sponsor. "When that happens we have to look at changing the system so that all voices count."

Bill critics say the measure could prove costly to localities and note that the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 is in place for minorities with electoral grievances.