Voting rights legislation authored with an eye toward changing Yakima’s City Council elections, was approved Tuesday by the House Government Operations and Elections Committee.
House Bill 1413, known as the Washington Voting Rights Act, is sponsored by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, would receive strong support in a floor vote in the House, but may have more difficult odds of passing the mostly Republican-controlled Senate.
House Democrats announced Tuesday that the bill was one of five pieces of committee-approved legislation aimed at increasing voter access and turnout.
“Our country was founded on equal opportunity and it is vital that we make sure that everyone has a voice and an equal shot in our elections,” Moscoso said of the Voting Rights Act in a news release.
The voting rights act would encourage cities, towns and other local jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to district elections. It gives ethnic minorities greater ability to take legal action to force changes in election formats if they can show a history of racially polarized voting.
The bill exempts municipalities with populations of less than 1,000 and school districts with less than 250 people.
The proposal was originally introduced in the 2012 legislative session, but it gained little traction. Since then, advocacy groups have pushed harder for the measure, which has received greater public attention this session.
Supporters of the measure point to Yakima’s history of elections as an example of where it could force change. Yakima’s population is 41 percent Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but no Latino has ever been elected to the City Council.
Yakima area lawmakers opposed the legislation last year and were also critical of the state Redistricting Commission’s decision in 2011 to create a Hispanic-majority 15th Legislative District. Despite the change, the 15th District’s two House incumbents, both Caucasian, were easily re-elected.
Yakima voters approved the current elections system in 1976, after years of voting for all City Council at-large candidates. The system has three seats at-large and created four districts with primary elections held only for district voters before going to a general election vote.
In August, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Yakima on behalf of several residents, including former City Council candidate Rogelio Montes. It alleges that the city’s current election format allows racially polarized voting to disenfranchise the city’s Latinos, an action that would violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.
That case is set for trial later this year in September.