Voting Rights Act surfaces again in Legislature

YAKIMA — A renewed effort to push for a state Voting Rights Act officially began Friday with the introduction of House Bill 1413.

The proposal would make it easier to challenge a local government’s elections format in court if evidence of racially polarized voting exists. Supporters of the measure have previously stated that Yakima’s hybrid of district and at-large City Council elections would be more vulnerable to a legal challenge under such a law.

A similar proposal gained little traction in the 2012 Legislature. But supporters, including bill sponsor Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, have continued to advocate for it.

Opponents of the legislation, including many City Council members, deny the city has racially polarized voting and call it an attempt to manipulate election results to benefit less popular candidates.

Councilman Rick Ensey, who represents the city’s 3rd District — where the majority of the city’s registered Latino voters live — said the failure of an initiative in 2011 to create all district voting in council elections shows that voters prefer the current system.

“It was put up to voters not too long ago to change it, they declined to do so,” Ensey said.

In a news release Friday, Moscoso said the legislation does not favor one particular voting system or ethnicity.

“Instead, it lets local governments solve the problem of voter exclusion in whatever way works for them,” Moscoso said. “It gives every Washingtonian an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice so that everyone has fair representation.”

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.

In August, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Yakima in U.S. District Court on behalf of several residents, including former City Council candidate Rogelio Montes. They allege the city’s current elections format allows racially polarized voting to disenfranchise the city’s Latinos, which would violate Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

That case is set for trial later this year in September.

Latinos now make up 33 percent of the city’s voting-age population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but no Latino has ever been elected to the City Council. The only Latino to serve, local attorney Sonia Rodriguez-True, was appointed to the seat and lost a close election to current council member Dave Ettl in 2009.

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.

It remains unclear whether the state Voting Rights Act has a better chance to be approved this session.

The bill has 29 Democratic sponsors in the House, but it is unlikely a Republican-controlled Senate under the Majority Coalition Caucus would allow the bill through.