Law could lead to changes in how City Council works
February 13, 2013
By Kylee Zabel, Reporter
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
A group of House Democrats re-introduced a bill this session that would affect how local governments run their elections.
Known as the Washington Voting Rights Act, House Bill 1413 is intended to address underrepresentation of minority groups in local government. The bill prohibits unfair elections in which members of a protected class (members of a racial, ethnic or language minority) are unable to influence an election and/or receive adequate representation in local political subdivisions.
In Sammamish, for example, about 19 percent of the population is Asian, but there has never been an Asian on the City Council. Of course, no Asian has ever run for City Council.
While only 3.9 percent of the population is Latino, there is a Latino member of the City Council, Ramiro Valderrama.
To affect how elections are operated in local government districts, persons of a minority group must provide evidence that polarized voting has occurred and that they, while a smaller percentage of the electorate, do not have an equal opportunity to influence election results.
Polarized voting may be observed when there is a disparity between the candidate chosen by voters of a protected class and by those of the remainder of the electorate.
There is no polling data to determine how people voted, by race, in Sammamish City Council elections, so this would be difficult to prove here.
To remedy the issue, under the proposed legislation, political subdivisions face two options:
Transition from at-large (what Sammamish is now) to district-based elections or, risk being sued by members of the protected class that have notified the political subdivision of their grievance.
Supporters of the bill take issue with at-large elections because they say it limits the minority representation.
District-based elections would require that political subdivisions be divided into different geographic districts that each contains majorities of members of different protected classes. By doing this, said supporters, minorities will have a greater chance of influencing local elections.
This might be tricky to achieve in Sammamish, since the neighborhoods are generally racially integrated.
Mountlake Terrace Rep. Luis Moscoso (D) sponsored HB 1413 because he believes there has been mounting evidence of polarized voting in Washington during recent years. Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-41) who represents the southern half of Sammamish is a co-sponsor.
There are several concerns with the legislation. Some say the bill only offers a greater opportunity for litigation, costing the districts and, thus, taxpayers more money.
Trent England, executive vice president of the Freedom Foundation, a non-partisan, Washington-based educational research organization, said: “The only thing you can be sure that this legislation will do is create lots and lots of lawsuits.”
Moscoso disagrees, claiming that the bill is not an open invitation for more lawsuits but that “it brings people together to talk about things. It does not initiate litigation,” he said.
Supporters, such as Toby Guevin of OneAmerica, reminded skeptics of the bill that litigation would only be brought if, after a county or district had been approached about its perceived violation of the law, the district failed to act on that warning within 45 days. The 45-day window is a provision Guevin said is unprecedented in voting-rights laws throughout the U.S.
Some argue that this so-called attempt to bring citizens and government closer together is just an illusion.
“This is not an opening for dialogue,” said Michael Schechter of Foster Pepper Law Firm. “Jurisdictions that are served notice have 45 days to do something about it. Basically, begin redistricting or be faced with a lawsuit,” he said.
Some take issue with the assumption that appears to be made that all members of certain protected classes vote the same way. More specifically, the assumption that minorities vote for minority candidates based on the candidate’s race or ethnicity rather than the merits of their candidacy.
Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) used the example of Ellensburg City Councilmember Anthony (Tony) Aronica, a Native American, to defend his position.
“People didn’t vote for or against Tony because he was Native American. They voted for him because he was a quality candidate,” Manweller said. “I think that’s the American way; you vote for the best candidate,” he continued. “You don’t start gerrymandering so that you can vote for people that look like you.”
Manweller said there is no doubt that majorities of subgroups tend to vote either Democrat or Republican, depending on the priorities of those specific groups.
However, he explained: “As we become more racially diverse and have more minority persons running for office, we start to vote more on quality of candidate than color of skin.”
One other concern is the impact this bill could have on the potential candidates for different positions.
Dan Steele, assistance executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, is concerned that going from at-large to district-based elections would narrow the pool of potential candidates and may limit the selection of qualified candidates.
“It’s almost disingenuous to say that somebody wouldn’t step up,” said Moscoso. “We have all types of candidates with various experience that run for office and they learn once they get in there.”
The legislation is scheduled for an executive session Feb. 12.
Editor Ari Cetron contributed to this story. To comment, visit www.SammamishReview.com.