Down in the Washington State Legislature, lawmakers are, for the sixth year in a row, fighting over whether to pass the Washington State Voting Rights Act.
If passed, a state-level voting rights law could give people of color the ability to challenge the voting systems in their cities if those systems don’t provide fair representation. In at least two cities in Washington—Yakima and Pasco—the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has argued that at-large voting systems dilute the Latino vote and prevent Latinos from having meaningful participation in local elections. (After the ACLU won a case in Yakima, a record number of Latinos ran for the city council there and won seats on the council for the first time.)
The point of a state Voting Rights Act would be to give Washington residents a local path to challenge those types of voting systems, instead of having to rely on lengthy and expensive federal cases under the federal Voting Rights Act. But some Republicans doubt there's much of a problem to be fixed at all.
This year, like in years past, Democrats in Olympia introduced a Washington State Voting Rights Act. But a Republican, Mark “Seattle needs adult supervision” Miloscia, introduced his own watered down proposal, too.
While both bills would allow cities to change their at-large voting systems to districted elections, Miloscia’s is significantly weaker. The Democratic proposal sets up a process for voters to complain if their city's system is unfair and then, if the city doesn't address the problem, to sue. Miloscia's bill creates no such complaint process and doesn't allow disenfranchised voters to sue their city in state court if the voting system is not fixed, leaving them with the same expensive federal process that currently exists. In short, it's a bill to allow local redistricting, but not a real voting rights bill.
“I call this the ‘Not the Voting Rights Act,’” Olympia’s Sam Hunt, who’s sponsoring the Democratic proposal, said on the senate floor yesterday.
Still, since Republicans control the state senate, Miloscia’s is the bill that moved forward for a full senate vote this week and passed along party lines. It was during the debate before that vote that a few Republicans wondered why they were even bothering with voting rights at all.
“People have the right to vote—do it,” said Curtis King, a Republican who represents Yakima, adding that he opposes the recent ACLU-spurred change to Yakima’s voting system.
“Accusations of gerrymandering, really?” said Mark Schoesler, a Republican who represents Ritzville. “I think our local governments are better than that.”
The most full-throated skepticism came from Republican Maureen Walsh, who represents Walla Walla, which is about 22 percent Latino. “I rise in support of this bill, I guess,” Walsh began. “I frankly don’t like rising in support of any kind of a Voting Rights Act bill.”
Here are her full comments. Watch the video here.
I rise in support of this bill, I guess. I frankly don’t like rising in support of any kind of a Voting Rights Act bill, though, to be perfectly honest with you. I don’t really see the problem. We’re all Americans. We can all register to vote. I don’t think communities are disenfranchised. I really don’t. And I’m a little bit confused why we do this. Sometimes I think about this and I think, is this reverse discrimination? If majority rules, majority rules.
And in our communities that have Hispanic voters, of which I represent a couple of them—frankly, pretty strong Hispanic population—I work on behalf of all my folks in my district. I don’t like assigning motive and I think sometimes that’s what we do when we do bills like this. We overcompensate and I don’t get it. And I think if we’re going to try to do away with prejudice or discrimination in this world, we have to quit perpetuating it. And when we do things like this, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Nobody is underrepresented. If you’re an American, you got a right to vote in this country. Get out and vote. Why are all those folks not registered to vote? Get ‘em registered to vote, then they have a voice. Every American has a voice if they vote. And I am just really disappointed when we have to keep spelling out these issues like this. Let’s move on as a country. Let’s celebrate our diversity. Let’s do the right thing. But, by God, passing bills like this that are messing around with district boundaries in order to accommodate one specific demographic of individuals—it’s not the right thing to do. And, God, I’m as warm and fuzzy as the next Democrat in this room, but I can’t believe this is the right thing to do.
And I’m sorry, I’m not even sure I’m going to vote for this, even though this is an alleged bandaid approach to this. I’m not happy with the Voting Rights Act. I think everybody’s got a right to vote and that’s what we out to exercise.
To Walsh’s claim that “nobody is underrepresented,” here’s the data from OneAmerica on what elected leadership looks like in 10 of Washington’s heavily Latino counties:
Before Miloscia’s bill passed on a party-line vote, Seattle Democrat Bob Hasegawa called it a “fabulous teaching moment.”
“I think that we are hearing the reality from both sides of the aisle and how we view the world,” Hasegawa said. “I think we cannot deny that racism exists, that privilege exists, that an imbalance of power in our system exists. This is not the answer to deal with that.”
The senate version will now head to the Democratically controlled house, where it's unlikely to gain traction. The Democrats' more robust version, meanwhile, awaits action in the senate. That's unlikely, too.