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Voting Rights Act may be poised to pass out of Legislature for first time in years

by caprecord

Supporters of a state Voting Rights Act are looking to the Senate to take action this session, following three failed attempts to pass the bill through the Legislature in recent years.

House Bill 1745 passed out the House on a 50-47 vote in early February, and passed out of the Senate Rules Committee on Monday — the final step before the bill hits the Senate floor. Sponsors of the bill are hopeful that bipartisan support in the Senate will lead to successful passage.

The bill aims to get more minorities into local elected office by setting up a process for groups to introduce legal action to change elections from at-large elections to district elections. Entities like cities or counties must be given 180 days to remedy the situation before legal action takes place.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said there’s no reason to delay the bill and he’s optimistic it will pass this year.

“I’ve seen some real momentum building up around this piece of justice,” Inslee said. “We know that our democracy works best when more people feel like their voice matters.”

The press conference was attended by nearly 200 activists from immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, who rallied at the Capitol earlier Tuesday in support of the bill. They chanted “power to the people for fair representation” and “united we stand, divided we fall.” Some wore tape over their mouths that an activist said represents the silencing of their voice if the act doesn’t pass.

Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and prime sponsor of the bill Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, also appeared at the event. They said Republican concerns about the bill have been addressed and the legislation is ready to go.

“It feels like we are doing the same thing over and over again, but sometimes you don’t know when the wall is going to break, ” Jayapal said.

Jayapal said a set of seven compromises have been negotiated between the House and Senate. While she said it she believes it makes the bill weaker, Jayapal believes the compromises are necessary to get a vote in the Senate.

The changes put some restrictions on the jurisdictions that are subject to the Voting Rights Act.  The act would not apply to a city or towns with a population under 2,000, or school districts with fewer than 500 students. Also, the act now excludes certain jurisdictions, such as port districts.

She also said that there is still one concern that the Republicans have.

“If the only thing left is the private right of action, that’s the teeth in the bill,” she said. “It allows it to have some meaning and we aren’t going to pass a bill without that.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said Tuesday said he’s hopeful that it will pass out of the Senate before the end of session on March 10, but thinks that it could use some “fine tuning.”

“I’d like to get to a conclusion that gives local government the tools and reduced the likelihood of litigation,” he said.