Senate panel hears minority voting rights bill

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A Washington state Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday on legislation to make it easier for minorities to get elected to local government posts.

The Washington Voting Rights Act, as supporters call it, would encourage court challenges to cities, counties, school districts and others to push them to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.

Sen. Pam Roach, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee, said it was not likely the bill would advance from her panel.

"It's a long reach," she said, noting that her committee consists of four Republicans and three Democrats. "These haven't traditionally been Republican issues."

The measure passed the state House earlier this month, where all but one Democrat voted in favor and Republicans unanimously voted in opposition to it.

Proponents of the bill - modeled after the California Voting Rights Act enacted in 2002 - say that Washington state's minority groups, and in particular Hispanics, are badly underrepresented at the local level.

"Sometimes election systems may inadvertently prevent communities from having representation," said Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, the House bill's sponsor. "When that happens we have to look at changing the system so that all voices count."

Bill critics say the measure could prove costly to localities and note that the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 is in place for minorities with electoral grievances.

"We are concerned about how much it would cost local governments to be engaged in litigation," said Victoria Lincoln, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities.

The federal Voting Rights Act invites court challenges to an election system that prevents protected minorities from meaningfully influencing election outcomes. Federal courts have in recent years limited the law's reach by raising the standard to create gerrymandered majority-minority districts.

If House Bill 1413 is passed into law, a plaintiff could use census data and election results to show that an unsuccessful minority candidate for local office would likely win if running in a district made up largely of the person's minority group.

Such proof could be used to demand a new election, a change from at-large to district-based representation, altering an existing district and payment of the plaintiff's attorney's fees.

The measure's supporters cite the history of elections in Central and Eastern Washington.

Adams and Franklin counties, for example, are about 50 percent Hispanic but in 2009 had a combined eight Hispanic elected officials of 247 overall, a study by former Whitman College student Zachary Duffy found.

In Yakima County, the American Civil Liberties filed a lawsuit last year against the city of Yakima. Forty-one percent of Yakima's 91,000 residents are Hispanic, but the city has never elected an Hispanic member to its at-large city council.

In 2011, council members refused to put an initiative on a special ballot requiring that each of the seven members represent a specific district, and Yakima voters defeated an initiative to change the system in last year's primary. The ACLU responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court under the federal Voting Rights Act. The case is pending.