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.