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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Washington Voting Rights Act offers sound steps for resolving disputes

The Washington Voting Rights Act is on the threshold of enactment by the Legislature after two earlier efforts failed.

This bill should pass.

The proposed legislation, ESHB 1745, provides minority populations and local government jurisdictions more tools and time to address claims of unfair elections. It does not guarantee the election of minority candidates.

The legislation arose out of a longstanding problem in Yakima, where Latinos representing one-third the voting age population have never – over a 37-year period – been able to elect a City Council member because the elections are held at-large. The Latinos sued, alleging violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, and in August U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice ruled in their favor.

In February, the judge approved a plan submitted by their attorneys that creates seven council districts, none of which concentrates Latinos into a single district.

ESHB 1745 does not prescribe districting, or any other one solution to correct instances of unfair election practices. Instead, the law sets up a methodical process for resolving disputes without litigation, beginning with notification to the local jurisdiction of alleged discrimination against a protected class, as defined by race, color or language.

The notice must be accompanied by an analysis substantiating the claim, and proposed remedies. The jurisdiction – city, county, or school, port or fire district – has 180 days to adopt a remedy or negotiate an alternative. If it adopts an alternative of its own design, the jurisdiction can seek court approval.

A successful outcome protects the jurisdiction from litigation for four years, a “safe harbor” not provided in the federal law.

If there is no resolution, a trial hearing the complaint must get underway within one year. Had that fast-track process been available, Yakima might not be out the $2.8 million spent in vain to turn back the federal discrimination claim.

Proponents emphasized the flexibility of a state voting rights act compared with the fixes available under federal law, which a witness for the American Civil Liberties Union characterized as a “hammer.”

Another witness said the Yakima litigation might never have happened if ESHB 1745, with a timetable “road map” for resolution, had been in place.

Ultimately, a state voting rights act may be invoked in only a relatively few disputes and jurisdictions where protected classes are concentrated enough to bring the law to bear. The law’s provisions protect both sides – plaintiffs from discrimination, officials from the harassment of frivolous claims – and put solutions in the hands of responsible contestants, not a judge.

The protection of voting rights should not have to start in U.S. District Court.