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Published on Monday, November 13, 2017

Early action on state Voting Rights Act legislation expected in 2018 session

For a number of years, the Legislature has debated proposals to create a Washington State Voting Rights Act. If a Washington voter presently believes that, as a member of a protected class, they do not have an equal opportunity to elect members of their choice, there exists a federal Voting Rights Act. The federal law broadly prohibits any voting procedure that impairs equal opportunity to elect candidates from minority groups. The Washington State version of the bill would implement a state Voting Rights Act, creating an opportunity to challenge specific local governments’ voting procedures in state court. After a voter gives notice to a local jurisdiction of a possible violation, if the local jurisdiction fails to implement a satisfactory solution within 180 days, a claim may be filed in state court.

This proposal would do the following:

  • Apply to cities and towns above 1,000 population, as well as school districts with more than 250 students, counties, fire districts, port districts, and public utility districts. It does not apply to statewide elections.
  • Allows voters to file notice with a local government that they intend to challenge the election process. The local jurisdiction would have 180 days to implement a remedy, or, if no action is taken, then the voter may file a legal action alleging a violation under the Act.
  • If a violation under the Act is determined, the court may order the jurisdiction to adopt a district-based election process, may order redistricting, or another remedy.
  • Depending on the timing of adoption of districts or other changes, special elections would be triggered for council positions with more than two years remaining.
  • If the local jurisdiction adopts a remedy either as a result of the notification or by a court-approved remedy, then no legal action may be brought against the local jurisdiction for the next four years.
  • Amends state statute to expressly allow non-charter code cities, second class cities and towns to adopt district-based election systems (or other types of voting methods) in general elections.

There are numerous other details in this proposal and there is the potential for this bill to impact a significant number of cities and towns. The bill is eligible for consideration again in 2018. The Legislature is expected to begin debate on this the first week of session and, given that about half of the members of the House cosponsored the bill, it will likely move very quickly.

AWC is working to identify actions cities can take to be proactive. There are some steps that cities can take now, such as engaging minority groups within your city, evaluating past elections to understand how your city’s election system works, and seeking advice from experts on this issue. AWC will continue to fine-tune information and identify ways to assist.

Categories: General government