(This story originally aired in February of 2020.)
During the 1960’s, Jimmie Lee Jackson tried registering to vote multiple times without success in Marion Alabama. These experiences activated him to take up the cause for the right to vote. His efforts, and finally his murder, led to a march which resulted in Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama during 1965.
Last week, the Washington State chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the city of Pasco’s at-large election system for violating the Voting Rights Act. The ACLU alleges the city has been unlawfully diluting the vote of Latinos in elections, preventing any Latino candidates from winning City Council seats.
This lack of minority representation is, unfortunately, not unique to Pasco. In 2014 Yuko Kodama interviewed University of Washington Political Science and Adjunct Law Professor, Matt Barreto, who said Washington State has some of the worst levels of equal representation in local government, and warned that voter rights lawsuits were on the horizon.
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
By John Stang
Amid universal praise for the Selma civil rights march, Washington’s Republican and Democratic senators passed a resolution commending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for leading the historic walk 50 years ago this week.
Then the Senate’s minority Democrats took the occasion to try to bring a stalled election bill — tailored to provide greater representation for people of color — to the full Senate floor. The Majority Coalition Caucus of 25 Republicans and one Democrat immediately defeated the attempt.
The Washington House Democrats plan to unveil their 2015-2017 operating budget proposal on Friday, which will start to point to how this legislative session will really go.
The bill by Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, addresses 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, school board or county commission that results in overwhelming white representation on that body. The classic remedy is to switch from at-large to district elections. Habib’s bill outlines how such situations would be defined and tackled.
This is the third year that a Democrat has introduced this bill, and the Democratic-controlled House appears ready to pass a similar measure as early as late Wednesday evening. This year, the Senate bill barely passed out of the Senate Government Operations & Security Committee, largely because of the support of the committee’s Republican chair, Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn. Since then, the bill has stalled in the Senate Rules Committee.
On Wednesday after the Senate passed the Martin Luther King resolution, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, called for a “Ninth Order” move to bring the bill to a full Senate vote. The “Ninth Order” is a parliamentary procedure in which some legislators move to get a majority vote of the full chamber to bring a stalled bill to a final vote by the entire Senate or House. This is generally used by the minority party and usually fails — although the losing party may still regard the vote itself as something of a victory for – arguably — embarrassing the majority or providing future ammunition to be used in election campaigns against some members of the majority.
The failure is largely foreordained because an unwritten rule of the Legislature is that regardless of individual feelings about a bill, everyone is supposed to vote with his or her caucus on “procedural” matters, such as whether to consider bills that the majority leadership has not approved for consideration. Prior to Wednesday’s vote on Liias’ motion, Senate Floor Leader Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, reminded his side that this was a procedural vote. Liias’ motion died 26-23 along caucus lines. Despite her support for the measure in the Government Operations Committee, Roach voted with her caucus Wednesday to stop the Democrats’ motion.
After the vote, Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island issued a written statement that said: “Today we heard many speeches about the importance of equality, of justice and of fairness, but when it came time to act, when it came time to actually deliver on these fundamental American rights, words, not actions, won the day.”
She added, “It’s one thing to speak about the importance of these values, it’s apparently quite another to act on them.”
Distributed by Crosscut Public Media
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