Round Two for Washington Voting Rights Act

By Liz Jones

Do people vote based on race?  That’s a question the Washington Legislature will likely tackle this session.  Supporters of a state Voting Rights Act plan to push the measure again this year.

It would aim to strengthen minority representation in places with a large population of Latinos or other racial group.

Supporters of a Washington State Voting Rights Act point to voting trends on the east side of the Cascades.  In the 10 most heavily Latino counties there, Latinos are a third of the population. But they only hold four percent of the elected offices.  University of Washington Professor Matt Barreto specializes on issues of ethnicity and race.

He says Washington has one of the lowest levels of minority representation in country. He likens it to the civil right era in the South.

Barreto: “There were cities in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s that were 80 percent Black and had no Blacks on the City Council. We have that same thing with Latinos in central and eastern Washington in the year and 2013. And I think people need to think about that. How did that happen? What system have we created that allows that to happen.”

Barreto says these lopsided outcomes are a symptom of at-large elections, where candidates run citywide or in an entire school district. He says if areas are broken up into smaller districts, the people elected would more closely mirror their constituents.  People can already challenge local voting systems in federal court. But supporters say a state law would make the process much faster and cheaper.

Dennis Meyers is with the California School Board Association. That state passed a voting rights act about a decade ago. Meyers says one big downside a financial burden on some school districts. Some have faced 6-figure legal fees if they’re out of compliance.

Meyers: “It really doesn’t matter what size your school district is. It’s going to have an impact and it creates quite a shock and quite a stir in the community.”

An attorney who helped write Washington’s act says they tried to improve on California’s model. He says the act aims to avoid or greatly reduce any legal costs for local governments.  Last session in Olympia, the Voting Rights Act passed out of committee. But it failed to get vote on the House floor.

It would aim to strengthen minority representation in places with a large population of Latinos or other racial group.

Supporters of a Washington State Voting Rights Act point to voting trends on the east side of the Cascades.  In the 10 most heavily Latino counties there, Latinos are a third of the population. But they only hold four percent of the elected offices.  University of Washington Professor Matt Barreto specializes on issues of ethnicity and race.

He says Washington has one of the lowest levels of minority representation in country. He likens it to the civil right era in the South.

Barreto: “There were cities in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s that were 80 percent Black and had no Blacks on the City Council. We have that same thing with Latinos in central and eastern Washington in the year and 2013. And I think people need to think about that. How did that happen? What system have we created that allows that to happen.”

Barreto says these lopsided outcomes are a symptom of at-large elections, where candidates run citywide or in an entire school district. He says if areas are broken up into smaller districts, the people elected would more closely mirror their constituents.  People can already challenge local voting systems in federal court. But supporters say a state law would make the process much faster and cheaper.

Dennis Meyers is with the California School Board Association. That state passed a voting rights act about a decade ago. Meyers says one big downside a financial burden on some school districts. Some have faced 6-figure legal fees if they’re out of compliance.

Meyers: “It really doesn’t matter what size your school district is. It’s going to have an impact and it creates quite a shock and quite a stir in the community.”

An attorney who helped write Washington’s act says they tried to improve on California’s model. He says the act aims to avoid or greatly reduce any legal costs for local governments.  Last session in Olympia, the Voting Rights Act passed out of committee. But it failed to get vote on the House floor.

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