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Schools, cities worry about bill pushing for wider representation

Rep. Luis Moscoso

Is a bill enouraging changes to voting districts in city and school board elections a way to fix skewed voting patterns without going to court? Or an invitation to an expensive  lawsuit?

Those two scenarios showed up Tuesday during testimony on a bill to tackle situations in which voters of a specific race, color, class or language group — dubbed a "protected class" — wind up under-represented. For example, a tiny fraction of elected officials are Latino in heavily Hispanic Yakima County, noted Toby Guevin of OneAmerica.

The bill introduced by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, would apply to cities with populations of at least 1,000; school districts with K-12 full-time equivalent enrollments of at least 250; and counties, ports, public utility districts and fire protection districts.

If someone believes that an at-large or district electoral set-up is skewed to marginalize a protected class, that individual must notify the governing body 45 days prior to filing a lawsuit in superior court. That 45-day period is to allow the governing body to study and fix the problem itself. "It's to find out if there is a problem and if can we work it out without going to court," Moscoso said. 

Once a judge is involved, he or she or an appointee studies the situation to determine if the setup actually marginalizes a protected class — and then fixes the problem if one exists. A likely fix-it measure would be switching from an at-large electoral system to elections by districts — or doing the reverse.

At a hearing before the Senate Government Operations Committee, 62 people signed up in favor the bill and four signed up in opposition.

Dan Steele of the Association of School Administrators and Victoria Lincoln of the Association of Washington Cities argued that the bill could create complicated situations while opening up cities and school districts to lawsuits. "The people who don't like the bill don't want to get sued," said Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee.

Steele said, "We don't decide who files for office and who registers to vote. … We ask you not to confuse the situation."

Lincoln told the committee, "This could cause millions of dollars in legal fees for local governments. … These are the kinds of numbers and figures we can't afford in the state of Washington."

However, committee member Sen. Bob Hasegawa replied: "I think this is a strong argument for the bill. It doesn't create a new crime, but a mediation process." He noted that the federal Voting Rights Act already provides people  with the ability to file lawsuits if they believe a protected class is marginalized.

The bill' s supporters said it does not require specific ways to tackle marginalization problems, but allows cities and districts to come up with their own fix-it measures.

"The bill does not prescribe one specific solution. It's about tailoring a solution to fit that particular district," said Shankar Narayan of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

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