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Evan Smith | schsmith@frontier.com
Published: Friday, February 8, 2013, 1:49 p.m.

Moscoso Sponsors Washington Voting Rights Act

State Rep. Luis Moscoso is sponsoring a bill to allow groups that are unrepresented in local government to sue in Washington courts.

For example, in Yakima, Hispanics make up 45 percent of the voters but have never won a city council seat under the citywide at-large voting system used in most Washington cities.

Now, the remedy is a suit in federal court under the federal Voting Rights Act. Such a suit is under way, but it's expected to be time-consuming and expensive for both sides.

So, Moscoso has sponsored the Washington Voting Rights Act, which aims to resolve such disputes fairly and less expensively. It would allow such suits in state courts, and let the city, county or district propose ways to resolve the problem. The act would allow, but not require, cities and other political subdivisions to switch from at-large elections to district-based elections and would prohibit election districts that are drawn or maintained in a manner that denies an equal opportunity for members of a race, color, or language group to elect candidates of their choice or influence the outcome of an election.

Moscoso introduced the bill, not because it's a problem in Snohomish and King counties but because he considers it unfinished business from last year.

Retired Democratic State Rep. Phyllis Kenny had sponsored the bill last year.

Kenny, who represented northeast Seattle, had grown up in the Yakima Valley.

Democrat Moscoso represents the 1st Legislative District including most of Mountlake Terrace, all of Brier and Bothell, north Kirkland, unincorporated areas of King County between Bothell and Kirkland, and unincorporated areas of Snohomish County north and east of Bothell.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Democratic Reps. Marko Liias and Mary Helen Roberts of the 21st Legislative District, and Ruth Kagi and Cindy Ryu of the 32nd District.

Moscoso said recently that the Washington Voting Rights Act would ensure that all communities in Washington have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice in local elections.

Moscoso said that the act would solve polarized voting that denies voters an equal opportunity to influence elections. Currently, at-large elections occur where candidates run citywide or across an entire school district, a system that can exclude many voters from having a meaningful voice in local elections. If areas were broken up into smaller districts, the people elected would more accurately and more fairly represent their communities.

"When entire neighborhoods are left without a voice, the result is a lack of accountability at the local level," he said. "What it boils down to is streetlights that may not get fixed, roads and sidewalks that may not get adequate maintenance, and other public safety matters that are critical to the well-being of the families living in those neighborhoods," Moscoso said.

The Mountlake Terrace Democrat noted that the act doesn't affect state-legislative elections since the state is already divided into 49 legislative districts that are distributed as fairly and proportionately as possible all across Washington.

Moscoso said the intent of the bill is to provide fair representation to every voter in the state and thus ensure that people in every community have a say on matters that are important to them.

If polarized voting is found in local elections, the Washington Voting Rights Act gives local governments opportunities to change their electoral system. If they do not comply, they could be subject to remedies in court.

Counties, cities, school districts, port districts, public utility districts and fire districts are covered under the act. However, cities of less than 1,000 and school districts of less than 250 students are exempt.

"My bill does not mandate any particular voting system and it does not require that candidates of any particular color or ethnicity get elected," Moscoso said. "Instead, it lets local governments solve the problem of voter exclusion in whatever way works for them. It gives every Washingtonian an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice so that everyone has fair representation."

Evan Smith can be reached at schsmith@frontier.com
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