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In Our View: Voting Rights Act is Needed

State House right to act to ensure all communities receive representation

The Columbian
Published: March 9, 2015, 12:00am

The need for the Washington Voting Rights Act, which passed the state House of Representatives last week, can be found in a federal court ruling from last year.

In a case involving Yakima’s system for electing its city council, U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice declared that, “Latino voters are inherently disadvantaged by the framework of the current system. … The non-Latino majority in Yakima routinely suffocates the voting preferences of the Latino minority.”

In Yakima, all city council members are elected to at-large positions — rather than by district — in a citywide ballot. This has disenfranchised a large portion of the population, resulting in the fact that no Hispanic has ever been elected to the city council — even though Hispanics now make up 41 percent of the population and one-quarter of registered voters. Rice declared that system illegal, and is mulling proposals from the city and from the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the system.

That serves as a bit of background for the proposal in front of the Legislature. On Thursday, the House passed the bill by a 52-46 vote that went mostly along party lines, with Democrats in favor. The Washington Voting Rights Act would open the possibility of court challenges to cities, counties, and school districts to push them to switch from at-large voting to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present. According to the Associated Press: “Under the measure, before someone can file a legal action, the political subdivision 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 subdivision for four years.”

The bill is unlikely to progress beyond the House. This marks the third straight year the chamber has passed such a bill, and last year’s effort did not even come up for a vote in the Senate. But at its heart, the bill speaks to the nature of representative democracy and to the notion of inclusion upon which this nation was founded. As Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace and lead sponsor of the bill, said, “Regardless of whether individual candidates win or lose, we must ensure that every community in our state has an opportunity to have their voices heard in the electoral process.” And, as Moscoso said in 2013, “When a neighborhood or community cannot elect representation from their locality, then democracy is not served, and our American Dream is diminished.”

Because of that, the court ruling and the Washington Voting Rights Act have far-reaching tentacles. It remains to be seen whether the issue eventually will extend to someplace such as Vancouver, where the city council consists of at-large positions but the population is more homogeneous than in Yakima, but the idea that city councilors or school board members must reflect their constituents should be inviolate. Imagine if the U.S. Constitution were altered and all Washington congressional representatives were elected in statewide balloting. The odds are that the entire delegation would mirror the big-city liberalism of the Puget Sound area and that none of the members would reflect the more conservative areas of Southwest or Eastern Washington. That is not so different from the situation facing minorities in Yakima and other cities.

Democracy can be fragile and messy. As author James Bovard is credited with saying, it “must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” The Washington Voting Rights Act could help ensure that all communities have a voice.