OLYMPIA – The state Senate passed several bills aimed at expanding access to voting and promoting minority representation in local governments through redistricting.
On the evening of Jan. 17, in a reconvened Senate floor vote session, the body passed SB 6021, which would allow voters to register for elections in-person up until 8 p.m. on the day of an election and eight days before if registering online or by mail. The bill passed 29-20 and now goes to the House.
The Senate also passed the 2018 Voting Rights Act: a bill which allows local governments to restructure electoral districts to avoid gerrymandering that disenfranchises minority groups. The legislation also allows for lawsuits to be filed against governments that refuse to restructure their electoral districts if disenfranchisement is identified.
Versions of the bill have passed the House five times over the past few years, but have always died in the then Republican-controlled Senate and have never made it to the floor for a vote.
“I’m really tickled that we’ve been able to get this long reworked bill to the floor for a vote,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D–Seattle, prior to the Jan. 19 vote.
“We’re doing something that has not been done anywhere else in the country,” said Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D–Seattle, the primary sponsor of the bill.
“We are creating a process where communities can give notice and work together with jurisdictions to find a solution that works for their city and district without a long drawn out process that causes division and bitterness,” she said.
While the bill was passed on Jan. 19, it was originally brought up for a floor vote two days before. Senate Republicans attempted to add several amendments, which were all voted down, before they blocked an attempted early vote on the bill.
On the Senate floor, Republicans argued that the bill, as written, will result in a torrent of lawsuits against local governments claiming that their electoral districting disenfranchise minority groups.
“This bill is actually the gerrymandering and litigation act,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R–Ferndale.
Sen. Mike Padden, R–Spokane Valley, said that the legislation is unnecessary due to longstanding federal law: “Where there is allegations of real discrimination, there is the Federal Voting Rights Act which was passed in 1965 and we have 50 years of interpretations.”
Senate Democrats countered that the bill designates legal action as a measure of last resort, and that the bill gives local governments the option to voluntarily redesign their districts.
“The primary purpose is to provide local decisions to local leaders and governments without ever having to go to court,” said Sen. Sam Hunt, D–Olympia. “There will be no court case unless a local government refuses to act and unless there has been a pattern proven of discrimination.”
“What you have before you, I believe, strikes a good balance,” said Sen. Saldana. “Good process and dialogue can prevent litigation.”
On Jan. 17, Sen. Sam Hunt, D–Olympia, was impatient with his Republican colleagues’ attempts to amend the bill at the last minute before passage. “We have been working on this bill for six years now. It is all worked out. It is a good solution.”
The bill passed with a wide margin of 29 to 19 with one excused absence.
Josh Kelety is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.