Washington state has steadily made access to voting more equitable in recent years and has long been a pioneer in providing universal access to voting by mail.
It’s one of five states in the U.S. that mails ballots to all registered voters for every election. The state has also made drop boxes more accessible. A 2017 law requires local election officials to provide at least one drop box for every 15,000 voters. Turnout is consistently better than the national average.
Last year, Washington’s state legislature voted to automatically restore the voting rights of people who have been convicted of felonies once they are released from incarceration. Previously, they had to apply to a court to restore those rights and pay some costs related to their case to qualify.
The Democratic Party dominates both chambers of the state legislature. The governor, secretary of state and attorney general are also Democrats.
But despite the state’s reputation for progressive leadership, Washington has been criticized and taken to court over gerrymandering and a signature matching requirement that disproportionately impact Latino voters. The state has the 12th largest population of voting age Latinos in the U.S.
Gerrymandering dilutes Latino vote
The bipartisan Washington Redistricting Commission’s plan for Washington’s legislative and congressional districts doesn’t comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to a lawsuit filed by UCLA Voting Rights Project, the Campaign Legal Center and residents of the Yakima region.
The commission’s map splits up the Latino population in Yakima, Franklin, Adams and Grant counties, and mixes it with rural areas that have a heavily white population.
This region has a Latino population above 50% and a consistent Democrat voting pattern, while the rural white areas in question have a history of voting Republican.
In 2014, a court ruled that Yakima’s election system for city council violated the federal Voting Rights Act and established a few Latino-majority districts.
It’s a history that plaintiffs in the new lawsuit have noted.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
“The proposed Commission map includes numerous city-splits that are not necessary to achieve population balance and appear to be attempts to keep the Latino population too small to have meaningful political influence,” UCLA Voting Rights Project wrote to the commission and Washington Supreme Court November 2021. “The Commission’s failure to adhere to both VRA guidelines and guidelines set forth in state law are concerning departures from the norm.”
The commission had hearings about the redistricting process in Franklin County, which has a Hispanic population of 54%, but didn’t offer Spanish translation.
A bill was proposed in Washington’s state senate that would have required preclearance from the office of the state attorney general for redistricting and other changes to voting practices. But the Republican senators who represent the Yakima area, Curtis King and Jim Honeyford, voted against the bill. It died in committee.
Signature matching has disproportionate impact
Latinos in Washington counties that have the highest Hispanic population were four times more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected for signature mismatch than other voters.
Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Walla Walla and Yakima counties make up 29% of the Latino voting population in the state. In November 2020, Latinos represented 17% of the ballots accepted in those counties. But they accounted for 46% of ballot rejections.
In response to these findings, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Latino Community Fund of Washington and a resident of Benton County are suing Benton, Chelan and Yakima counties.
Voters have the opportunity to “cure” missing and mismatching signature statements on ballots if they can present information within 21 days after Election Day. County auditors in Washington are required to contact voters by phone three days before the certification deadline.
Employees at county election offices verify the signatures on absentee/mail-in ballots by comparing them to the voter’s county voter registration record. Washington mails ballots to every registered voter, and about 99% of them are mailed or returned via drop box.
The lawsuit calls the counties’ signature matching process a “flawed system,” explaining that the same person’s signature can vary from instance to instance or change over time. The process is also overly reliant on the discretion of local election workers, the suit argues.
“We are asking the counties to revise their qualification process to remove the possibility of racially discriminatory effects,” said Sonni Waknin, a UCLA Voting Rights attorney, in a press release about the lawsuit. “Every voter deserves the right to have their ballot counted.”
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