OLYMPIA – A proposal to allow Washington cities to rearrange voting districts so minorities could have a greater voice in elections was praised Thursday as a way to avoid costly federal lawsuits; it also was denounced as a Trojan horse for more litigation.
The proposed state Voting Rights Act passed the House on a partisan vote during the regular session but stalled in the Senate despite bipartisan support. It got an airing in a joint Senate committee work session Thursday though it’s unlikely to be revived for the special session, which is concentrating on budgets.
The city of Yakima has been ordered by a federal court to revise its council election system to allow better representation by a growing Hispanic population. Under the proposal, city officials and a group challenging the local electoral system would have more opportunities to negotiate a change, said Shankar Narayan of the ACLU, which joined the federal suit against Yakima.
“Our entire purpose is to avoid litigation,” Narayan said. “It allows jurisdictions to adopt solutions.”
John Safarli, a lawyer from the firm that represented Yakima in the suit, said the bill goes too far by “creating a brand new cause of action” in state courts when federal law already protects minority rights. Giving cities and other local government jurisdictions the authority to change voluntarily is a good idea and the bill should stop there, he said. He added that a provision that would make sitting officials resign if they have more than two years on their term when the districts are redrawn is unfair.
Elected officials have to run for re-election all the time, Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, countered. “I don’t think anyone should think they own a seat.”
Hans von Spakovsky, an election official with the George W. Bush administration who now works for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said some terms in the bill are vague, like “reasonably equal” districts. “What’s reasonable? It sets you up for endless rounds of litigation,” von Spakovsky said.
But Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Seattle, challenged von Spakovsky’s concerns about more litigation, saying a group had to do more than challenge the current system: “You have to provide a remedy.”
Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he wasn’t sure if the bill would get a chance for a vote in the special session but could be revived next year.
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