Washington Voting Rights Act 2.0 passes House

OLYMPIA – An update to the Washington Voting Rights Act, House Bill 1048, passed the House today with bipartisan support. Sponsored by Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma, the bill allows for organizations and tribes to file an notice of intent to challenge an election system on behalf of their members and provides that someone who challenges an election system that adopts the proposed remedy can recover the incurred costs.

“To see what life was like prior to the Washington Voting Rights Act, we need look no further than the city I was raised, Pasco, Washington,” said Mena during committee testimony. “Pasco is characterized and divided by historic housing segregation. And despite growing up in neighborhoods and going to schools where everyone looked like me, none of my elected officials did. I don’t recall having elected leaders from our neighborhoods or even seeing elected leaders engage with our neighborhoods.”

In 2018, the Legislature passed the WVRA to assist cities, counties, and other local elected bodies voluntarily adopt changes to improve representation in their local elections. Prior to the passage of the WVRA, state law only allowed at-large elections for most Washington cities. This had the impact of diluting representation for parts of the community, particularly communities of color. Prior to passage of the WVRA, the ACLU sued the city of Yakima under the federal Voting Rights Act because despite being 40% Latino, Yakima had never had a Latino elected official. The WVRA allowed cities to voluntarily reform their election systems to be more truly representative of their populations and then allowed a for a lawsuit to be filed if the city refused.

“The passage of the WVRA has moved our community closer to equitable representation in Yakima County and its many communities,” said Audel Ramirez, a Yakima resident. “The Yakima community has shown what the WVRA can do to reduce and work to eliminate voter dilution in Washington State. Making our electoral system truly democratic and accessible to all members of our community. We celebrate the strengthening of the WVRA with the passing of this bill and we look forward to the opportunities and progress this will create in the future.”

Since the passage of the WVRA, it has in some ways suffered from its own success. The work necessary to file a challenge to a political subdivision’s election system is often fairly costly. We have seen many cities choose to voluntarily adapt their system as opposed to going through a costly legal process. However, this means that the person who filed a notice of intent to challenge the system is left with the cost of doing the research to challenge the election system because they can only recover costs if a lawsuit is filed.

The Washington Voting Rights Act 2.0 tackles that problem in two ways. The first way is that allows organizations or tribes to represent their members when challenging an election system as opposed to an individual community member. The second way is that it provides that if a person or organization files a notice of intent to challenge an election system and that political subdivision then adopts a remedy to the situation without a lawsuit having to be filed, the person or organization may recover the costs incurred in conducting the necessary research to bring a suit.

“This bill makes the Washington Voting Rights Act more accessible and practical for communities to use,” said Mena. “We created the WVRA to ensure that every vote matters, let’s make sure that every Washington voter can unlock its promise.”

HB 1047 passed the House with a vote of 57-38. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.