Among the many methods elected officials have considered to boost voter resgistration and turnout, the most effective in restoring confidence and participation in the political process could be the Legislature’s adoption of the state Voting Rights Act.
State and county election officials for years have looked to increase registration and election turnout, with mixed results. As is typical during presidential election years, turnout was strong in 2012, with about 80 percent turnout both statewide and in Snohomish County. Percentages fell off in the following years, hitting only 38.5 percent in 2015 statewide and 34.8 percent for the county. But even for an off year, 2011, like 2015 the year before a presidential election, the turnout was a healthier 52 percent for the state and county.
Bucking that trend last year was the city of Yakima, which saw an increase in voter registration and turnout for its city council primary and general elections. The result was the election of three Latino women to its council, a first in the history of a city that is 41 percent Latino. One of the three was later appointed as mayor. But it took a lawsuit by the ACLU under the federal Voting Rights Act and the expenditure of nearly $3 million to force a redistricting in Yakima that switched the council to representation by districts and away from at-large representation that had stifled Latino voices in those neighborhoods.
Passage of the state’s Voting Rights Act, already approved by the House and now waiting a floor vote in the Senate before the end of the legislative session next week, would allow for a voluntary and much less costly process, backed by the option for action by state courts if necessary.
Under the state act, residents represented by cities, counties, school districts and other voting districts, could file a claim that the act has been violated and seek a negotiated settlement to create a system of voting by district or to redraw district lines to better represent voters. Local governments also could voluntarily change to proportional voting, an option that isn’t currently open to all local governments.
Proponents, including Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace and Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, have had to make some concessions to the act to win enough Republican support. Among the changes, cities and towns with populations under 2,000 and school districts with less than 500 students would be exempt from the act.
Jayapal told the Seattlepi.com’s Joel Connelly that some have resisted including a provision that would allow state courts to be the final word if negotiations fail. While talks between a local government and its residents would offer the best outcomes and avoid the costs of a legal battle, the option to appeal to the courts has to remain as incentive to reach a deal.
It may be necessary, for example, for a court to review the boundaries of proposed districts to ensure districts are equal in population, compact, representative of its residents and avoid the gerrymandering that dilutes the votes of minorities.
As the ethnic makeup of our state continues to evolve, lawmakers have to promote and protect the votes and voices of all residents. As has been shown in Yakima, doing so can only increase the enthusiasm for participating in local elections and in the decisions of local governments.