The following story appears in the Washington State Labor Council’s 2017 Legislative Report published in August.
By ERIC GONZALEZ
For the fifth straight year, Republicans in the Legislature shot down the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), a bipartisan compromise proposal that would provide local governments an opportunity to create equitable, accountable election systems.
It passed the House 51-46 (see Vote #2), but was killed without a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.
HB 1800, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac), would enable cities and counties to fix unfair, undemocratic voting systems and avoid costly litigation. It addresses polarized voting, a method of voter suppression that excludes the voices of the communities of color and low-income families.
At-large city-wide election systems are prone to polarized voting patterns. The majority determines every member of the city council, school board, public utilities district—positions that can dramatically impact a community’s social, health and economic prosperity. In such systems, there is little incentive for elected officials to advocate for the needs of the minority bloc.
These antiquated, discriminatory local election systems are one of the reasons that people of color are underrepresented at every level of local government across Washington state. That representation gap has real impact—communities lack access to local decision-makers who know and understand their interests and concerns.
In recent years, municipalities across the state with such election systems have been sued in federal court for violating provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In Yakima, an all-white conservative city council fought tooth-and-nail against a federal lawsuit that found its election system, which had classic signs of polarized voting, had suppressed the Latino vote that makes up 40 percent of the population. The decision to fight that lawsuit rather than change the election system cost Yakima taxpayers nearly $3 million in legal fees. In the end, the city was forced to reform its system to create districts and the change was transformative. For the first time in the history of the city, not just one but three Latina women were elected to the city council. These new leaders have advocated for inclusive policies around public safety, access to community centers and neighborhood parks, infrastructure, and economic development in their communities that had gone ignored under the previous leadership.
Washington must step up its commitment to voter enfranchisement. Provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act have been under attack. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court removed a requirement that states obtain approval from the Department of Justice to change voting procedures. Without the provision, state governments were quick to implement discriminatory Voter ID laws and reduced the number of polling places where communities of color live, among other undemocratic policies.
By empowering local jurisdictions to fix the problem, HB 1800, the real Washington Voting Rights Act, is designed to lower costs for local governments and taxpayers. Municipalities that make meaningful changes would be protected from future lawsuits. It is the product of years of stakeholder input and bipartisan collaboration to put voters front and center. As they have repeatedly killed this legislation, Republicans have promoted another version of the legislation that fails to achieve those goals.
When election systems are set up to ignore entire communities, that isn’t representation, it isn’t democratic, it isn’t fair, and it runs counter to the freedoms that are afforded to us as citizens of this nation.
We all lose.