On a 53-43 vote, House lawmakers approved the Washington Voting Rights Act, which opens the possibility of court challenges to cities, counties and school districts to push them to switch from at-large to district elections in areas where large minority groups are present.
The measure now heads to the Senate, where it is not expected to pass. The Senate is controlled by a Republican-dominated coalition. Republicans in the House opposed the measure.
At the heart of the measure is the history of elections in central and eastern Washington where the population of Latinos has grown but minority advocates say representation in local offices remains low.
They contend the disproportionate representation is best exemplified in the city and county 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 each of the 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, and the case is still pending.
The most recent example used by advocates is last fall's race for a position in Yakima's school board. A woman with a Latino name lost 60 percent to 40 percent to woman who was not campaigning and had dropped out of the race.
"This is an honest, straightforward proposal that seeks to make democracy a reality for all Americans," said Rep. Luis Moscoso, a Democrat from Mountlake Terrace and the bill's sponsor, in a statement. "Residents of every neighborhood should have the same voice in local elections."