A House of Representatives panel held a hearing Wednesday on the so-called "Washington Voting Rights Act," attracting a lively debate on the measure that's being pushed by minority interest groups.
The measure allows for minority individuals or groups to seek court-mandated orders to jurisdictions to reform their elections. Those jurisdictions include towns and cities of 1,000 people or more, school districts, fire districts, counties, ports among others. Among the remedies is shifting from at-large elections to district-based elections to better represent residents.
The push behind the measure is the history of elections in Central and Eastern Washington, specifically Yakima County where the American Civil Liberties filed a lawsuit last year against the city of Yakima.
Forty-one percent of Yakima's 91,000 residents are Latino but the city has never elected a Latino member to its at-large city council. In 2011, council members refused to put an initiative on a special ballot requiring that all seven members represent a specific district, and Yakima voters defeated an initiative to change the system in last year's primary.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court under the federal Voting Rights Act.
Many advocates also saw the August 2012 election of Supreme Court Judge Steven Gonzalez as indicative of a racial divide in Washington state voting. Gonzalez lost most of Eastern Washington despite his lone opponent not mounting a discernible campaign.
But at the hearing, lobbyists for cities and other school districts said that the measure is too vague and could allow for expensive legal battles.
Dan Steele of the Washington Association of School Administrators said school districts have a mix of elections. Some are at-large while others hold district elections, or both.
He said the measure could limit the choice school districts have on what voting system works better. Furthermore, he said school districts could be sued for circumstances they can't control, such as who registered to vote, who goes to vote and who files for office.
Michael S. Schechter, an attorney who has worked with various municipalities, said that while there is a problem in some parts of the state when it comes to elections, the bill lacks standards to fix them. He said the bill does not allow ample time - 45 days - for municipalities to address concerns before a lawsuit can be filed.
But proponents said the measure is designed to avoid a legal battle and to provide tailored solutions to local problems.
"The bill allows local governments to make a change when they become aware of these kinds of problems and before litigation ever happens," said Shankar Narayan of the ACLU of Washington.
He said that the measure does not call for any official to be removed from office or reverse election results.
Nayaran added that Yakima was sued after years of ignoring concerns over its election system.
A version of this measure moved smoothly through the House last year but it was not brought to a full vote.