Voting rights bill could help Latino voters in Yakima County

YAKIMA, Wash. — State legislators are considering a bill this week amending the Washington Voting Rights Act to prevent local jurisdictions from changing voting practices in ways that do not comply with state law.

Senate Bill 5597 would block illegal or discriminatory changes ahead of time by requiring preclearance with the state attorney general’s office prior to making certain changes to their voting practices.

“These updates to the Washington Voting Rights Act will help avoid costly lawsuits, empower local communities and ensure our state continues to lead the way in safeguarding access to democracy,” bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Saldaña said.

READ: Advocates: New political maps will stifle Latino voices in Yakima County for another decade

Bill proponents said getting preclearance would be especially helpful in areas where local jurisdictions such as the City of Yakima and Yakima County have already faced issues with discriminatory voting practices.

“Ideally, they’re working with their local communities and doing public hearings when they’re doing those changes, but this will help provide a little bit more clarity,” Saldaña said.

The City of Yakima was previously sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of community members who claimed the city’s at-large voting system diluted the power of Latino voters.

At that point, every voting resident of the city cast their vote for each council member, regardless of whether they lived in that council member’s district; after 37 years of that system, no Latino had ever been elected to the Yakima City Council.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled the City of Yakima had violated the federal Voting Rights Act and ordered the city to adopt a district voting system, where only people who live in a district can vote for that district’s representative.

A similar voting rights lawsuit was filed against the Yakima County Board of Commissioners years later by OneAmerica and Campaign Legal Center, alleging their at-large voting system was preventing Latino voters from being able to elect a candidate of their choice.

In 2021, commissioners reached a settlement agreement with the two organizations and agreed to transition from an at-large to a district voting system.

READ: Lawsuit claims state political maps illegally ‘cracked’ Yakima Valley to dilute Latino votes

Saldaña said she hopes the bill will help local jurisdictions be proactive in preventing violations when considering any additional changes to their voting practices.

“I’m hopeful that it will prevent future things from happening and allow local jurisdictions to, at least, do their best to make sure that representation happens,” Saldaña said.

According to the latest version of the bill, changes would include:

  • Requiring certain jurisdictions to obtain preclearance that certain proposed changes to their election systems will not violate the Washington Voting Rights Act before those changes may take effect.
  • Providing that persons or organizations who file a notice of intent to challenge an election system under the WVRA may recover costs incurred in conducting the necessary research, if the notice causes the political subdivision to adopt a remedy that is approved by the court.
  • Establishing a data repository at the University of Washington to assist the state and political subdivisions with evaluating their compliance with election laws, implementing best practices, and investigating potential infringements of the right to vote.
  • Making minor language changes to other aspects of the WVRA

According to the latest fiscal note, the changes required in the bill would not require financial support from local governments and the bulk of the cost would go to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

SB 5597 has been passed by the Senate and is now moving through the House of Representatives. An executive session is scheduled at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations.

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