State bill would empower local governments to close representation gap
OLYMPIA (Dec. 8, 2017) — Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) introduced the Washington Voting Rights Act (SB 6002) to the Washington State Senate on Wednesday. The WVRA is designed to help cities, counties, school boards and other local elected bodies voluntarily adopt changes to their elections system that will improve representation in local elections.
“This bill is a significant step in the ongoing effort to remove barriers and expand access to our democracy, particularly for disenfranchised populations,” Saldaña said. “Like we’ve seen in Yakima and Pasco in recent years, having community members participate in drawing districts is the best way to ensure they have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The WVRA will create the most effective process for voters in the nation to ensure a collaborative and less costly process for fair and equitable local elections.”
In most cities in Washington, state law only allows for at-large elections. This system is more likely than district-based elections to result in certain voters being underrepresented, including communities of color. The WVRA would allow local governments to implement a more fair system while also helping cities and counties avoid costly litigation under the federal Voting Rights Act.
“This is our opportunity to ensure that as a state institution we are doing everything to level the playing field and create an environment where everyone is represented,” said Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-SeaTac) the prime sponsor of the House of Representatives’ version of the bill (HB 1800). “When the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed, it was a major milestone, but that was 53 years ago. A lot has changed and so should we. I want to pay respect to the many legislators in the House who have worked on this year after year and I am excited to work with the Senate to finally pass this important legislation into law.”
The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO has strongly supported the WVRA for several years. In 2017, the legislation passed the House 51-46, but was killed without a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. With last month’s election of Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), Democrats now control the Senate, raising hopes that the WVRA will finally get a floor vote there.
“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,” wrote WSLC Legislative and Policy Director Eric González in the council’s 2017 Legislative Report. “That representation gap has real impact — communities lack access to local decision-makers who know and understand their interests and concerns.”
“On behalf of OneAmerica and our immigrant leaders across the state, we are thrilled to see the Washington Voting Rights Act moving forward as a key priority for the 2018 legislative session,” said Rich Stolz, Executive Director of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica. “For the last seven years, our communities have fought to ensure people of color have greater access and representation in local governments and school boards. Now is the time and we look forward to working with Sen. Saldaña and Rep. Gregerson, as well as leadership in the House and Senate, to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act.”
“The WVRA promotes a strong, healthy democracy by empowering people to work with their local elected representatives to ensure all voices are heard,” said Elisabeth Smith, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “No voter or community should be denied an equal opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice.”
“We are delighted that Sen. Saldaña and Rep. Gregerson have taken the lead fighting for a Washington State Voting Rights Act,” said Peter Bloch Garcia, Executive Director of the Latino Community Fund of Washington State. “This law will dramatically improve the lives of countless Latinos throughout Washington state by making local representation possible in many communities. For too long, Latinos have not been at the table when the decisions are made that leave our community behind. We call on the Legislature to pass this law and make political opportunity a reality for our community.”