When Seattle election results were announced in November, the excitement was palpable across the city. Many took to social media to discuss the makeup within the new group of councilmembers: For the first time, the Seattle City Council had more women, had increased racial diversity and was younger than ever before.
Many attribute this demographic shift to the newly established city council district elections Seattle voters approved in 2013 to replace the previous at-large elections. Every other odd year, residents are now able to vote for representatives from one of seven districts. The alternating odd years, voters elect candidates to two citywide council positions.
The Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) aims to spread this trend across the state. The bill would protect the rights of state voters and create a state process in which the courts can require local jurisdictions to adopt district-based elections if necessary. It has been on and off the floor of the Washington State Legislature for years.
Not every city in Washington has the option of district elections, and this is one of the many factors that can contribute to inequality in local elections. This year, advocates continue to push for a vote implementing WVRA to remedy the “lack of accountability at the local level” that emerges without the neighborhood-by-neighborhood representation across the state, and the inclusion of all communities.
“The WVRA is designed to provide similar protections to voters as the federal [Voting Rights Act (VRA)] to ensure that all communities have a fair chance at representation in local elections,” said Toby Guevin, advocacy director for One America, one of many organizations pushing for the bill’s passage. The bill does not force every city to change into district-based elections. It can be applied only when there are communities that do not have equal weight in election cycles.
Yakima is the most recent and drastic example of how access to elections can change the demographics of city lawmakers. Before the November 2015 election results were announced, Yakima voters had yet to elect one Latino council member, despite the fact that the city is home to more than 37,000 Latino people, more than 40 percent of the population.
The American Civil Liberties Union Washington (ACLU) sued the city in 2012 due to the lack of Latino people on the city council. The ACLU argued that an at-large election process “dilutes the Latino vote, does not allow for equal participation by Latinos” and therefore violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Since ACLU sued, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington ruled the at-large system unlawful, and the city participated in its first district-based elections. There are now three Latinas on the council. However, this representation problem goes beyond Yakima. Although cities such as Spokane, Tacoma and Bellingham vote by district, cities such as Olympia, Bellevue and Vancouver do not.
Guevin said that, as of 2015, “28.7 percent of the state’s population is people of color, but only 8.1 percent of legislators, 7 percent of city councilmembers and 6.4 percent of school board members are people of color.”
“We need representation that is both reflective of and accountable to all communities in Washington,” he said.
Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who represents residents of the 37th district, is backing the bill.
“There’s no reason the bill should not be moving forward,” she said. “We’ve had four years of negotiating that bill, and it was passed out of committee in a bipartisan way and held back by Republican leadership in the final negotiations. We’d love to have it be something Republicans and Democrats take credit for.”
If it doesn’t pass, more lawsuits will likely emerge, Guevin said.
“Those will be very costly for local governments, since they won’t have the opportunity afforded under the WVRA of resolving cases without litigation,” he said.
The federal Voting Rights Act protects Washington state residents alongside U.S. citizens from racial discrimination at the polls, however advocates remain concerned. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key element of the act that determined which states had the ability to change voting laws without federal approval.
This had immediate consequences for voters in nine states, almost all of which are in the south except for Alaska and Arizona. States such as Texas and Alabama have begun to revert to historically discriminatory practices.
In 2015, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, announced the closure of more than 30 government offices in rural parts of the state that issue driver’s licenses. Driver’s licenses are one of the most common forms of identification, and many people cannot vote without one.
“My constituents are the least able, and least likely, to have access to transportation — either public or private — and thus travel across county lines for a driver’s license,” explained Congresswoman Terri Sewell, of Alabama’s 7th district, in a statement after the governor’s proposal. Ultimately, Gov. Bentley allowed the government offices to remain open for one day per month.
The WVRA will close gaps in the federal VRA by creating flexibility to resolve cases before legal action is taken, Guevin said.
“Our hope is that this will ensure we fix broken elections systems that exclude communities of color from fair representation, while also providing relief to local governments who would otherwise be on the hook for legal costs associated with a federal lawsuit,” he explained.
California is the only state to have passed an additional act that bolsters the federal Voting Rights Act, according to One America. Since it was signed into law in 2002, opponents challenged it in the California Supreme Court, but it was upheld as constitutional.