In 2018, our state legislature is set to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act (WA VRA). We need to support the versions of HB 1800 and SB 6002 that keep voting system options open for local communities when they face issues such as racially polarized voting. Like its federal predecessor, this would allow communities to find their own solutions to changing demographics and how it impacts voting—instead of an overly restrictive mandate from Olympia.
In 2014, US District Court Judge Thomas Rice issued a summary ruling finding the City of Yakima’s election system in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The court said Latinos could not elect a candidate of choice under the City’s at-large winner-take-all system.
Yakima had to find a remedy to problems with its voting system. However, an exclusive district mandate is not in the federal VRA, so the city looked for at-large solutions to better fit its circumstances
Considering Yakima has no independently elected mayor, with exclusive districts, there would be no city-wide representation whatsoever. Therefore, the City offered a remedy of a hybrid district / at-large system. The proposal featured five single-member districts—including two exclusive majority-minority districts; along with two seats in a modified at-large arrangement.
The City Yakima, looked to established case law within the federal VRA for modified at-large by proposing a Top-Two Plus voting system. This kind of voting is identical to how primaries are currently run in our state. The “plus” feature is—the top-two vote getters win the election. Each voter gets one vote towards electing two seats. There is no primary with this kind of election. With this version of proportional representation, winning takes no more than a third of the vote.
I believe proportional representation is a better way to facilitate minority representation. This means racial and political minorities.
While this type of voting may sound new to some, more than 100 jurisdictions in the United States use similar systems—many as a remedy to VRA cases. For example, a federal court just last year allowed the Ferguson, Missouri school board to choose a modified at-large voting system to remedy their VRA violation and the plaintiffs and ACLU backed the remedy.
But in Yakima, the plaintiffs and ACLU opposed the city’s proposal by citing state law not accommodating modified at-large. Judge Rice sided with plaintiffs and imposed an exclusive seven-district voting policy on the City for the 2015 elections and beyond.
The 2015 elections were historically good ones for Latino voters in the plaintiff-drawn district maps—although there were wide disparities in voter participation. Those turnout disparities continued in 2017. In the general election, the majority-minority District 2 produced 807 voters—while District 6, drawn for whites, had a 3,545 voter turnout.
Even though District 2 was drawn specifically for Latino voters, 71 percent of the district’s voters chose a white, non-Spanish speaking candidate Jason White over Latino Pablo Gonzalez; after the incumbent Latina finished third in the August primary that had even lower turnout. White’s overwhelming win challenges certain expectations and assumptions regarding voting rights, racial policies and who is expected to win and lose elections.
There are also the policy consequences bore by every one of the City’s voters regarding accountability with their city council. Yakima voters can now only vote for one seat on their council—once every four years. They used to vote every two years among all candidates.
FairVote submitted an amicus brief in the Yakima case. If our hybrid district / modified at-large remedy were granted by the federal judge (who I believe had the power to do so), the City’s voters could have had a say on a majority of four seats with their council. The wild disparities in voter turnout between certain districts would have also been negated some with larger single-member districts, and the obvious lack of districts with modified at-large voting. I understand the worry that Latino voters might not turn out at the same level as white voters, but I also want to see rules that create incentives for more equitable participation.
Modified at-large voting is also more dynamic than locking voters into single member-districts for 10 years—better over time accommodating inevitable demographic changes. This way, voters from all walks of life have the equal opportunity to elect a candidate regardless of where they live, or where in the city they choose to move to. This kind of voting also accommodates volunteer entities like school boards, as a pool of candidates can be drawn from the whole school district instead limiting single-member districts.
Modified at-large voting essentially does away with gerrymandering. As we have seen in Yakima, voters can decide for themselves who will best represent them without political elites making rules to meet their own expectations.
It is very difficult to hold a federal judge accountable. Fortunately, there is leadership in Olympia which supports the current WA VRA with local options as a way to avoid time consuming and expensive federal litigation. It’s important to keep those options in the bill instead of mandating exclusive single-member districts from above.
When a jurisdiction considers options such as districts, modified at-large, or a combination of the two, local auditors must be consulted. Voting equipment can always handle a single vote system as proposed in Yakima, but not always with variations like the Ranked Choice system that gives voters even more voice and power. Jurisdictions will want to weigh the potential financial cost of not going to exclusive districts and how any voting change could require a voter education effort. Again, the local elected voting official is best suited to offer information to a community considering its options.
The Washington State Voting Rights Act will only be stronger with remedy options that offer attractive solutions to help address challenging issues of race, voting and the politics around them. After all, it’s voters in their own communities who must benefit from this new voting policy.