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Democrats keep pushing for new voting measure

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

May 8, 2015 - 11:00 am

By John Stang

Senate Democrats and supporters made a symbolic push Thursday to get a state voting rights act to the Washington Senate floor.

The legislation appears doomed for 2015.

Technically, though, two similar bills are in play, one sponsored by Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland and the other by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace. The bills address situations in which minority communities might be underrepresented in their local governments.

The best example consists of a city or county with a huge minority population conducting at-large elections for a city council that consistently results in overwhelming white representation on that body. The classic remedy would be to switch from at-large to district elections, with the districts reflecting the racial makeup of an area. The bills outline how such situations would be defined and tackled.

Moscoso’s bill passed the House, with voting mostly along party lines. The Senate Government Operations & Security Committee recommended approval of both bills. The committee’s chair Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, and assistant chair Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, both recommended approval of Moscoso’s bill. That would give it a 25-vote majority in the Senate if the entire minority Democratic caucus supports it as well.
However, the Senate Rules Committee — controlled by Republicans — won’t allow either bill to go to a full floor vote. And Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville, contended Thursday that Roach and Benton’s support of Moscoso’s bill in committee does not mean that they would vote for it in a full floor vote.

The only way for the Democrats to get either bill to a full floor vote seems to be on a procedural vote by the full Senate. But a powerful, unwritten rule is that each legislator votes with his or her caucus on all procedural matters despite his or her personal stance on the bill in question. Caucus leaders on both sides use this tradition to keep bills they don’t like — but appear likely to pass — from going to a full floor vote. That is how the GOP senators earlier killed such an attempt to bring Habib’s bill to a full floor vote.

On Thursday, Democrats held a rally outside the Capitol Dome, and the Senate’s Law & Justice and Government Operations & Security committees held a joint work session to discuss the pros and cons of the voting rights bills with attorneys for and against the concept.

At the work session and at a press session, Seattle attorney John Safarli, who represented Yakima in a federal Voting Rights Act case, and Schoesler both described the state bills as encouraging expensive litigation. “I think there are people who don’t have the purest of motives in litigating,” Schoesler said.

Meanwhile, Habib and Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, contended that the bills stalled in the Senate Rules Committee would decrease the likelihood of litigation occurring, because those bills offer ways to set up ethnic-majority districts without going to court before a lawsuit shows up.

“This, in many ways, is a litigation prevention tool,” Jayapal said.

Under the current federal Voting Rights Act, the only way to tackle ethnic underrepresentation in local government is by a lawsuit.

However, an initiative by a jurisdiction’s residents can convert an at-large election system to district elections. This happened in Seattle. But, Habib and Jayapal argued, that route does not guarantee that the carved-out districts don’t all end up gerrymandered to have white majorities. Such an arrangement still handicaps people of color from being appropriately represented at their local government and school board levels, they said.

Cities potentially affected by a state voting rights act might include Pasco and Sunnyside, which, despite being heavily Hispanic, have overwhelmingly white city councils. Some towns in Snohomish County could also be affected, Jayapal and Habib speculated.

Washington’s most famous example is the heavily Hispanic city of Yakima, which lost a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on this issue. A federal judge has ordered the city to set up district elections this year to include two majority-Hispanic districts. The judge said there was a clear pattern of white voters suppressing Latino interests in previous elections, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. The city is appealing that ruling.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.