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Party-line vote advances Voting Rights Act from House committee
By Kylee Zabel
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
The Washington Voting Rights Act, legislation intended to address underrepresentation of minority groups in local elections, passed out of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee on Tuesday.
The vote split along party lines, six Democrats in favor and five Republicans opposed.
House Bill (HB) 1413, known as the Washington Voting Rights Act, is created to prohibit unfair elections in which members of a protected class (members of a racial, ethnic or language minority) are unable to influence an election and/or receive adequate representation in local political subdivisions.
This phenomenon — called polarized voting — where there is a disparity between the candidate chosen by voters of a protected class and by those of the remainder of the electorate, can be prevented by political subdivisions changing from at-large to district-based elections.
If polarized voting is found in districts with at-large elections and those districts choose to not transition to district-based elections, members of protected classes may sue in order to remedy the issue.
Amendments were offered by Republicans to limit the opportunities for litigation and to exempt school districts with 5,000 or fewer full-time enrolled students from the bill. An amendment was also proposed to prevent judges from appointing those who are either convicted felons or affiliated with parties in the lawsuit to manage the redistricting of at-large districts. All amendments failed.
Prime sponsor Rep. Luis Moscoso (D-1st District, Mountlake Terrace) believes the bill would inspire greater civic participation, a necessity in a democracy.
"It's a rare occasion when you have legislation like this that enhances and augments the democratic process," he said. "It's an honor to bring this bill forward."
Sunnyside native, Emily Gonzalez, said that at-large elections are unjust because, in Yakima County, it limits the voice of the large population of Latino residents.
Currently, Yakima is 41 percent Latino.
But some have their concerns.
Trent England, executive vice president of the Freedom Foundation, said, "the bill only offers a greater opportunity for litigation, costing the districts and, thus, taxpayers more money."
Moscoso disagreed, claiming the bill does not initiate litigation. "It brings people together to talk about things," he said.
One other expressed concern is the assumption being made that minorities vote for minority candidates based on candidates' race or ethnicity rather than the merits of their candidacies.
"I think that's the American way; you vote for the best candidate. You don't start gerrymandering so that you can vote for people that look like you," Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13th District, Ellensburg) said.
"As we become more racially diverse and have more minority persons running for office we start to vote more on quality of candidate than color of skin," added Manweller,
A similar law was passed in California in 2002. Prior to that California, had repeated offenses under the federal Voting Rights Act appearing in courts.
Washington has had virtually no such offenses, one exception being a recent lawsuit against the city of Yakima by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Forty-four persons signed in support of HB 1413 when it received a public hearing in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee Jan. 30. These individuals were representing various organizations, including the ACLU of Washington, OneAmerica, the League of Women Voters of Washington, Progreso: Latino Progress Alliance and Planned Parenthood. Some were there to support the legislation on their own behalf; many were from Yakima and surrounding cities.