Voter Rights Act awaits governor’s signature

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The state House voted Tuesday to implement the Washington Voter Rights Act, which aims to increase the minority representation by breaking up cities and districts into smaller voting blocks.

The bill’s supporters say this will lead to greater diversity of candidates and voters. Critics of the measure argue that it will only lead to frivolous and abusive lawsuits.

Currently, many cities and political districts vote at-large for representatives, meaning every resident of City A can vote on every single city council seat. If there are five seats up for grabs, and City A’s Caucasian majority votes for the white candidates in every seat, all five seats would end up with white officials.

Under the current election system, 51 percent of the population of City A could end up with 100 percent of the representation, in which case the minority 49 percent would receive absolutely none.

Theoretically, if a city moved to district elections, each seat — one-fifth of the cities elected officials — would be chosen by one-fifth of the population, resulting in more equal representation in city councils, school districts and other political bodies.

Arguing against the bill, Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said the measure was an attempt to change elections when a voter is unhappy with the result. Meanwhile, Manweller said, no candidate he’s ever voted for in Washington — presumably except for himself — has ever won an election.

“And at no time have I ever suggested that my vote didn’t count,” Manweller said. “At no time did (the legislature) ever come to me and say, ‘Rep. Manweller, let us change the rules so that you can start winning.’”

The process enters the courts if the complainant is not satisfied with the remedy drafted by the city or district, where the burden of proving that the remedy is sufficient is placed on the city or district.

Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, said that this was only appropriate.

“The burden should not be on those marginalized communities to prove why the proposed remedy is insufficient,” Valdez said.

But this process of presuming the defendant guilty until proven innocent ignores legal convention, said Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City.

“Whatever the law is, it is usually always the plaintiff’s burden to prove fault,” Graves said.

The proposal would make mounting a legal defense impossible, said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, when existing state laws already direct judges to view evidence in favor of the defendant in these types of cases.

“If people aren’t suing in good faith, if they’re just suing to win, this is the provision that most makes that possible,” Irwin said.

Irwin said that if the clause had been removed, the bill would have received far greater bipartisan support.

The bill passed 52-46, with Democrats picking up two votes from across the aisle. Central Washington lawmakers unanimously voted against the measure.

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