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Washington's high court deemed the state's Voting Rights Act as "constitutional on its face", which could spur more state action to expand political representation.

State’s High Court Unanimously Rules the Law is Constitutional

The Washington Supreme Court earlier this month unanimously upheld the state’s Voting Rights Act as “constitutional on its face”. The decision came as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Alabama must redraw its congressional districts to create a reasonable opportunity for Black voters to elect one of their own.

Voting rights have been a heated topic in the last decade as the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to prevent states from imposing barriers to voting on account of race. The high court has essentially stripped away federal oversight of state election practices and watered down remedies. That’s why the 5-4 ruling directing Alabama to redraw its congressional districts came as a surprise.

The Washington Supreme Court ruling addressed a redistricting plan for Franklin County commissioners. Under pressure from Latino residents who make up a third of the population, the rural county north of the Tri-Cities shifted from at-large elections by creating three commissioner districts, increasing the opportunity for a Latino candidate to win election. A Franklin County resident appealed the change.

In its ruling denying the appeal, the state Supreme Court said, Washington’s Voting Rights Act, “protects all Washington voters from discrimination based on race, color, and language minority group.” The court added that the act is “constitutional on its face”. The intervenor asserted Franklin County’s three-district plan violated the 14thAmendment and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Washington Constitution.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Voting Rights Act , hailed the decision as confirmation of “federal courts’ commitment to district-based solutions as the default under the federal Voting Rights Act.”

“The forceful ruling by the Washington Supreme Court sends an encouraging message to those in favor of inclusive and accountable government: states are well within their rights to protect voters against discrimination and guarantee equal electoral opportunities.”

The forceful ruling by the Washington Supreme Court sends an encouraging message to those in favor of inclusive and accountable government.

Connecticut joined Washington, Oregon, California, New York and Virginia in enacting voting rights legislation. Similar bills have been filed in Maryland and New Jersey. Meanwhile, 19 states have passed legislation imposing voting restrictions that include additional ID requirements for mail-in ballots, fewer ballot drop boxes and shorter window for early voting.

Oregon Voting Rights Act
Oregon adopted its Voting Rights Act in 2019 to ensure people of color have a fair shot at representation, including on school boards.

The Sightline Institute, which conducted research into the makeup of Oregon school boards, said, “Many Oregon school districts have a majority of students of color but are often still led by mostly white school boards. The way that Oregonians elect school board members (and many other local offices) can prevent people of color from having a voice. “

Sightline, a nonprofit research center focused on Northwest issues, described the measure as giving people of color “an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice” without having their votes diluted. “The Oregon Voting Rights Act lays out two pathways for a school board to change its electoral method to ensure that equal opportunity. First, a school board that recognizes people of color are not fairly represented can authorize a chance to alter its electoral method, after going through a proper public process. Or, an individual may bring a lawsuit against a district that does not allow for equal opportunity at representation. In the latter path, the judge can determine what electoral system is the most appropriate remedy.”

Sightline credited the Oregon statute for recognizing people of color in the Pacific Northwest are not always concentrated in specific areas. “The Oregon act does not require geographical concentration as a prerequisite for bringing a suit, and it encourages boards and courts to take a lack of geographical concentration into account when fashioning a remedy,” Sightline said. “Instead of a ‘majority-minority’ remedy, multi-winner districts with ranked-choice or cumulative voting are solutions that can help achieve better representation.”

Automatic Voter Registration
Oregon also enacted in 2015 automatic voter registration when securing a state driver’s license. In the 2023 legislative session, House Democrats pushed through House Bill 2107 that would extend automatic voter registration to people who sign up for the Oregon Health Plan. That legislation is awaiting action in the Senate.