OLYMPIA — Is the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) reverse discrimination?

Rep. Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) declared it is as the bill passed off of the House floor March 7.

The premise of the legislation comes from the phenomenon of polarized voting, in which there is a disparity between the candidate voted for by minorities and the candidate who wins and is voted for by the remainder of the electorate.

In order to remedy the disproportionality, lawmakers have proposed a measure that would allow members of a minority group – termed “protected class” in the language of the bill – to bring litigation to political subdivisions that reflect evidence of polarized voting.

The bill passed with a party-line 53 to 44 vote, with one member excused. SHB 1413 now moves on to the Senate where it could receive further consideration in that chamber’s Governmental Operations Committee

Cities with more than 1,000 residents, school districts, port districts, fire districts and public-utility districts would all be affected by the bill if enacted into law.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Luis Moscoso (D- Mountlake Terrace), the WVRA is essential to providing minorities with an equal voice in local government and is vital to a democracy.

“Every vote should count and every voter should have a voice,” he said. “That’s the idea behind our American democracy.”

Several other Democratic representatives echoed those sentiments, claiming the legislation would invite greater participation from members of protected classes.

“It is about the right of voting, the right of involvement, of getting the key to be able to participate in your government,” said Rep. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia).

But Walsh challenged that and argued that the assumption that minorities don’t have an equal opportunity to participate in politics is false.

“All Americans have equal opportunity and that’s what this country is all about,” she contended. “We perpetuate the prejudice when we continue to drive issues like this.”

The bill is modeled from a similar law in California. Prior to its passage in 2002, districts in California had repeated offenses under the federal Voting Rights Act. Washington, on the other hand, has only had one federal violation.

In August 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington filed a lawsuit against the city of Yakima under the claim that Yakima City Council elections reflected polarized voting under federal law. The ACLU argues that at-large elections used by the council have led to its racial disproportionality.

The official ACLU complaint states: “White voters consistently vote as a bloc to elect candidates favored by the white community and defeat the Latino community’s representatives of choice. This racially polarized voting results in the limited representation of or indifference to the Latino community’s interests on the City Council.”

According to the ACLU, each Yakima City councilmember resides in western Yakima, which is mostly White-populated. As a result, the union believes that the council fails to represent the interests of a highly Hispanic eastern Yakima. Currently, Yakima is 41 percent Hispanic/Latino.

However, some argued that passing this bill would open the floodgates to litigation that could negatively affect school districts and hinder state and local governments in addressing the state’s constitutional obligation to fund public K-12 education as outlined in the State vs. McCleary Washington State Supreme Court decision.

“We want to accomplish change, not bankruptcy,” said Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg).

Some Republican House members introduced amendments to attempt to limit what they perceived as potential hardships caused by lawsuits that may result from the measure. All amendments were rejected.

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