Washington Voting Rights Act passes legislature

People in Yakima gather to support the Washington Voting Rights act in 2015, which aims to provide an alternative to federal voting rights lawsuits. (Photo by Eric Gonzalez Alfaro for OneAmerica.)

The Washington Voting Rights Act has passed both chambers of the legislature — sending the bill to Gov Jay Inslee.

The bill will establish an easier process for cities, counties and school districts to move from city-wide elections to district elections — before resorting to a lawsuit. Supporters say this will enable candidates to better reflect the demographic, ethnic and economic make-up of their neighborhoods.

“It sets up a collaborative process for communities to work it out before you have to go to court,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila.

The Washington cities of Yakima and Pasco were sued by residents who said that their city-wide city council elections were racially polarized, keeping Hispanic candidates from winning council seats. After switching to elections based on geographic districts, both cities elected their first Hispanic council members.

The House has passed a version of the Voting Rights Act bill in past legislative sessions, but the bills would stall in the Senate. The Senate voted Monday 29-20 for final passage.

This year, in both chambers several Republicans crossed the aisle to support the measure — but several Republicans still spoke against the bill during the floor debates over the past week.

“This bill is an insult to people of color and to minorities,” said Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, during the House floor debate. “It says: ‘We don’t believe you’re smart enough or attractive enough to be elected.”

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, replied: “As a woman of color, I’m not offended by this policy.” She said the bill enables local elected officials to better reflect the people of their neighborhoods. Her ancestry includes some Mexican and Japanese roots.

The bill sets up procedures for cities, towns and school districts to decide whether to switch from at-large elected officials to district elected representatives. Those procedures map out how petitions can be submitted to governing bodies to set up referendums on such revisions. The procedures apply when a protected class, such as a significant racial or ethnic minority, is noticeably underrepresented on school board or city council.

At-large elections tend to skew toward those candidates who have greatest name recognition or the biggest campaign budget. That’s a disadvantage for less established candidates or those with less money — who often are people of color or women. District elections aim to break that cycle, so voters can put representatives from their own neighborhoods on boards and councils.

One of the Republicans supporting the bill last week was Rep. Larry Haler of Richland, a city that is 87 percent white. Haler said that the changes in the Voting Rights Act could benefit all underrepresented groups, including lower-income candidates. Weeks ago in a public hearing he supported the bill because five of Richland’s seven city council members came from the same upper-class neighborhood, with city’s poorer neighborhoods not being represented on the council.

History of change

More than two years ago Yakima was forced to adopt district-wide elections after a federal judge determined that the city’s at-large election system was racially polarized, stifling the voice of the Hispanic population. According to the U.S. Census, Yakima’s population is 45 percent Hispanic.

After the change to district elections, all the seats were up for election. Yakima voters elected three Latina candidates to the seven-member council. It was the first time in Yakima history that the voters had elected Hispanic council members.

Since then, the council has hired a bilingual city manager, has bilingual interpreters at city events, has more public forums, meets with the school board to discuss youth issues and has improved access to a 24/7 shelter for the homeless.

Pasco switched to district elections last year. That same year, Pasco, which is 55 percent Hispanic, elected its first three Latinos to the city council.

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