by Hanna Brooks Olsen
Now that the Washington Legislature is on its way to passing the Voting Rights Act, the real work begins
With the election of Senator Manka Dhingra in 2017, Democrats in Washington State solidified control of both chambers of the Legislature. With Democrat Jay Inslee in the Governor’s Office, progressive lawmakers had a clear path to pass laws which had previously floundered on the Senate floor.
One of the top priorities, according to both elected officials and advocates, was the Washington Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation that would serve to remove barriers for cities and municipalities which choose to pursue more equitable distributions of power through elections.
“The legislature finds that electoral systems that deny race, color, or language minority groups an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice are inconsistent with the right to free and equal elections,” reads the bill. “The well-established principle of ‘one person, one vote’ and the prohibition on vote dilution have been consistently upheld in federal and state courts for more than fifty years.”
Despite attempts from Republican lawmakers to dilute the power of the bill—Senator Mark Baumgartener, for example, attempted to add language stating the courts “may not approve any remedy that favors or disfavors any racial group or political party,” but it was not adopted—the bill received support from unlikely allies, including the Seattle Times Editorial Board and, earlier this month, was passed by the Senate and a sure-thing for signature by Governor Inslee.
“Washington needs a voting rights act so that every local jurisdiction has the opportunity to do this, and so that impacted communities can truly have a voice that counts,” noted Senator Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, who introduced the bill. Senator Saldaña called the passage of the bill “a significant step forward in our ongoing effort to expand access to democracy.”
With the bill passed, though, local elections offices and advocates are determining their next moves. Now, the real work begins.
What’s Next for Voting Rights
To find an example of the tangible changes that the WVRA may spur across the state, look to the City of Yakima for the prime example. Yakima, a city that is majority Latinx and Native, had almost always been entirely white.
In 2012, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of Yakima residents who felt that the way the City’s “at-large voting system deprives Latinos of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the Yakima City Council.” In 2014, a Federal court found that, indeed, “City Council elections are not ‘equally open to participation’ by members of the Latino minority.”
Yakima responded by switching to a districted election, which helped ensure that City Councilmembers needed to come from different areas of the city and campaign to fewer people—two elements which have been shown to reduce barriers for non-white, non-male candidates.
The following year, Yakima elected not one but three Latinx candidates to their City Council. However, in the absence of a statewide voting rights act, though, an expensive legal battle ensued, totaling close to $3M.
Yakima is a prime example, then, of what happens both with and without voting rights protections—the courts used the Federal voting rights protections to make their decision, but without a firm local law to rely on, the battle was waged, in part, on the taxpayer’s dime.
Under the Washington Voting Rights Act, cities that are currently barred from changing the way they elect their representatives would be freed to make the necessary alterations. In many places, that’ll mean district-based elections, but it’s not required. Other cities may choose to take different actions for their city councils, school boards, and other local races.
This is a necessary change; numerous studies have found that diversity on city councils and school boards have real, cogent impacts on the way that towns and cities function, as well as on the ways that children learn and are disciplined. And currently, that diversity is missing in a massive way. According to the National League of Cities, “the percentage of people of color serving on city councils nearly doubled from 1979 to 2001, rising from 7 percent to 13 percent.”
However, it’ll be on citizens in cities and regions where there are currently less-equitable elections systems to push for these changes. The Washington Voting Rights Act has the potential to shake up local control in a noticeable and potentially disruptive way for longtime politicians in smaller cities who have relied on easy re-elections; pushback, especially in red (or reddish) areas of the state seem likely.
For voters—particularly voters who haven’t seen themselves well-represented in their local governing bodies—the WVRA will only be meaningful if they, themselves, are lobbying for these changes. It’s a prescription, but it’s not a cure. And without the voice of voters who are demanding that they see follow-through from those in power currently, it’ll mean little in the long-run.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.