Will this be the year that Washington state passes a Voting Rights Act?

Pasco elected three Hispanic council members, one year after the city council adopted district elections to replace city-wide elections. (Photo by City of Pasco via Twitter.)

Two eastern Washington cities, Yakima and Pasco, saw increased Hispanic representation on the city councils in the past three years, after replacing their at-large, city-wide elections with district elections.

Ruben Alvarado is one of Pasco’s newest city council members and among the city’s first three Latinos on its council. He said despite Pasco’s population being 55 percent Hispanic, many of those residents did not participate in elections until the city adopted district elections.

“They felt like they didn’t have a voice. People didn’t pay attention because no one ever reached out to them,” Alvarado said.

Now, two bills in Washington aim to create a state Voting Rights Act, which would make it easier for cities, counties and school districts to move from city-wide elections to district elections, enabling candidates to better reflect the demographic, ethnic and economic make-up of their neighborhoods. 

At-large elections tend to skew toward those candidates who have greatest name recognition or the biggest campaign budget. That’s a disadvantage for less established candidates or those with less money — who often are people of color or women.

District elections aim to break that cycle, so voters can put representatives from their own neighborhoods on boards and councils.

More than two years ago Yakima was forced to adopt district wide elections after a federal judge determined that the city’s at-large election system was racially polarized, stifling the voice of the Hispanic population. According to the U.S. Census, Yakima’s population is 45 percent Hispanic.

After the change to district elections, all the seats were up for election. On election night, Yakima voters elected three Latina candidates to the seven-members council. It was the first time in Yakima history that the voters had elected Hispanic council members.

Yakima Deputy Mayor Dulce Gutierrez says the federal Voting Rights Act didn’t just change the faces on the city council, but it also changed city priorities.

“I’ve seen the benefits that have played out in the city of Yakima since the election,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez pointed to the hiring of a bilingual city manager, having bilingual interpreters at city events, having more public forums, setting up meetings with the school board to discuss youth issues and improving access to a 24/7 shelter for the homeless. The city is also creating an inventory of its assets for the first time in many years.

The legislative bills by state Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, and state Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, map out the procedures for a protected class, such as a racial or ethnic minority, to approach and require local governments to conduct a public vote on whether to change from an at-large system to a district system.

“The Voting Rights will remove barriers to disenfranchised populations,” Saldana said. “You want to make sure every person in your city or school district has a voice.”

“It’s to make sure many communities and cultures are better represented,” Gregerson said.

The Senate passed Saldana’s bill 29-19 earlier this month. Both Saldana’s and Gregerson’s bills are working their way through committees in the House.

At their cores, these bills are the same Voting Rights Act that in years past would die in the state Senate, controlled by a Republican caucus. This year could be different — the Democrats have the majority in both the House and the Senate, as well as the governor’s seat.

Gregerson’s bill would apply to any town with a population greater than 1,000. Dave Williams, a lobbyist for the Washington Association of Cities, is pushing for that limit to be increased to 2,500 because of the difficulty in mapping out specific racial neighborhoods in a very small town.

Republican Rep. Larry Haler of Richland is co-sponsoring Gregerson’s bill. He says that district elections need to be an option even in cities where the disparity in representation is not by race or ethnicity.

In Richland, where the population is 87 percent white, five of the seven at-large city council members, live in the same upscale neighborhood around a private golf course.

The Richland City Council has no council members from the city’s poorest section, where the biggest concentration of people of color and Ukrainian immigrants live, Haler said.

Haler said that incumbent council members “don’t want to give up that power,” and a process for a public referendum on district elections would give the immigrant populations a voice.

“I’m looking forward to better representation of citizens on the city council,” Haler said.