FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — Feb. 10, 2022
OLYMPIA – Today the Senate passed SB 5597, a bill sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) to expand access to fair and effective representation for historically marginalized and underrepresented communities in Washington state.
“With the Supreme Court gutting the federal Voting Rights Act and Congress failing to take action to protect voting rights, now more than ever we are obligated to enshrine these protections for all voters in our state,” said Saldaña.
“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.”
Senate Bill 5597 would update and strengthen the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA), which became law in 2018, by:
- requiring jurisdictions making changes to voting practices to get preclearance to ensure the changes are compliant with state law.
- some practices that would require preclearance include redistricting, adding at-large seats to a governing body, or changes to the plan of government.
- making it financially easier to bring a WVRA claim and ensuring that claimants can recover costs of up to $50,000 when a jurisdiction voluntarily takes action in response to a letter even if no lawsuit ensues.
- establishing a database at the University of Washington to help jurisdictions, researchers, and members of the public understand which jurisdictions should contemplate changing their form of elections.
- allowing all counties to expand county commissions from three to five members to remedy potential WVRA violations.
The Yakima Valley is home to Washington state’s largest Latinx population, a community that has been fighting for fair and effective representation in local government for decades. While Latinx people now make up more than half of Yakima County’s population according to the 2020 census, voters in the county have been able to elect only one Latinx person to the commission since 1998.
Latinx residents and the ACLU sued the City of Yakima under the federal Voting Rights Act, which resolved successfully for the plaintiffs in 2014. Yet another suit was brought against Yakima County and was settled in 2021.
Under SB 5597, community members would be able to block changes and actions that dilute or abridge the voting rights of minority groups instead of waiting years for the resolution of costly and time-consuming litigation. Before Shelby County v. Holder, preclearance was one of the most successful policy tools in the federal Voting Rights Act to fight back against discriminatory voting practices nationwide.
Background on the 2018 Washington Voting Rights Act
In 2018, SB 6002 was signed into law, creating the WVRA. To ensure racial, ethnic, and language minority groups have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of choice, under the WVRA jurisdictions can choose to make voluntary changes to their electoral systems rather than go through costly litigation.
The WVRA applies to elections held within counties, cities, towns, school districts, fire protection districts, port districts and public utility districts. Any voter in an affected area may challenge the electoral system. The political subdivision has 90 days to address the potential violation or becomes subject to a lawsuit.
The court may, for example, require a political subdivision to redistrict or shift from an at-large to a district-based election system. The court may award attorneys’ fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff. Prevailing defendants may be awarded some costs but not attorney’s fees.
For interviews & information:
Ali O’Neil, Senate Democratic Caucus Communications, 360.786.7052