Many Washington cities and counties could elect their council and commission members by district under a bill some senators described Thursday as a voting rights act and others denounced as a Band-Aid. The proposal, one of five “Voting Rights” bills introduced in the Legislature, passed on a 25-24 party-line vote. It would allow smaller cities and counties the ability to drop at-large elections in favor of districts with equal population. Many of Washington’s largest cities and home-rule counties already can do that, and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said it was only fair to let small cities do what Spokane and Seattle have already done. But critics of the bill said it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t ensure that minority groups will get an equal shot at fair representation when districts are drawn. They said a more comprehensive Democratic bill had more protections, but it didn’t get out of committee.
“One thing we cannot deny is racism exists in this world,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle. “This bill is a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.”
Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said she didn’t like the bill either, but for the opposite reason. “We’re Americans, we can all register to vote,” Walsh said. “Nobody’s underrepresented. Every American has a voice if they’re registered to vote.”
In the end, Walsh and all other Republicans in the Senate majority voted for it, and all Democrats except Sen. Tim Sheldon, who is part of the majority coalition, voted against it. It now goes to the House, where Democrats who control that chamber passed and sent to the Senate a more comprehensive voting rights bill on Monday. Their version would do more to protect equal rights for minority groups in local elections, along with providing an opportunity to challenge districts in court.