For immediate release: April 5, 2023
Washington Lawmakers Strengthen State-level Voting Rights Act
Washington passes HB 1048 to make it easier for communities to challenge discrimination in elections
OLYMPIA, Wash. – In the midst of a nationwide rise in anti-voter legislation, our state lawmakers chose to strengthen voter protections in the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). The WVRA, first signed into law in 2018, empowers communities of color and other minority groups to challenge discriminatory local election practices. On Wednesday, Washington lawmakers passed House Bill 1048, which makes the process to file a WVRA suit more accessible and affordable for affected voters. The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature.
The WVRA was signed into law in 2018, thanks to advocacy from groups like OneAmerica and the Washington Voting Justice Coalition. The first lawsuit filed under the WVRA successfully overturned election systems that suppressed the voting power of Latino voters in Yakima County in 2021. Even though Latinos make up over 50% of the county, Latino candidates of choice had rarely been elected to political office.
“Ensuring Washington’s electoral system works for communities of color is critical to a functioning democracy,” said Roxana Norouzi, the executive director of OneAmerica. “After passing this legislation in 2018, we got straight to work challenging barriers in Yakima County and won. We crafted this legislation with our partners to make the law more effective, fair, and accessible – to take the burden off our communities to implement it.”
The lawsuit in Yakima County cost community organizations close to $2 million dollars and multiple years of advocacy and litigation.
“High costs and steep barriers to filing a lawsuit make it difficult for communities to fight for their freedom to vote, and voters of color inevitably pay the price,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president at Campaign Legal Center. “The improvements to the Washington Voting Rights Act included in this bill will reduce costs and burdens on communities, so community organizations can protect voters of color from discrimination and achieve a truly inclusive and equitable democracy where every voter can make their voice heard.”
Under the improved WVRA, the parties who violated voters’ rights can be made to reimburse communities up to $50,000 for the costs of their WVRA case. Additionally, the bill clarified that organizations that serve communities of color can enforce voting rights on behalf of their members. The bill also levels the playing field for jurisdictions of all different sizes who are seeking justice.
House Bill 1048 additionally creates stronger protections against vote dilution, where districting or voting practices reduce the voting strength of racial and other minority groups. Washington is no stranger to this. If you look at 496 elected officials at the county level in our state, 89.7% of those officials are white in a state where only 63.8% people are white.
“It’s not because of anyone’s malice – most voters want fair representation for everyone,” said Denisse Guerrero, policy manager at the Washington Community Alliance. “It’s because we’ve inherited a rigged system that dilutes the voting power of some communities, and inflates that of others. Everyone agrees that when it comes to elections, we should have a level playing field, and that’s exactly what these improvements to the Washington Voting Rights Act will help voters across our state secure.”
House Bill 1048 is just the latest of the successes that voting rights advocates have achieved in recent years, which range from same-day and automatic voter registration, to restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions. Leaders applaud these improvements to our state law as a reaffirmation of Washington’s vision of a truly multiracial democracy where all voices are heard.
“Despite growing up in neighborhoods and going to schools where everybody looked like me, none of my elected officials did,” said Representative Sharlett Mena as she introduced House Bill 1048 in committee. “The WVRA is the bedrock of a truly representative democracy, a democracy that I believe we all deserve in the state of Washington. It puts power back into the hands of the people by enabling individuals and groups to petition for local election structures that allow them to choose leaders from their own neighborhoods.”
WA Voting Justice Coalition: Abigail Leong
OneAmerica: Allison Carney
Campaign Legal Center: Mannal Haddad
Rep. Sharlett Mena: Peter Kitchen