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Democrats dominate again in Washington state. First up: voting rights.

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Democrats dominate again in Washington state. First up: voting rights.

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After winning back a slim, one-seat majority in Washington's state Senate earlier this month, Democrats knew exactly what piece of legislation they'd take up first.

Climate change is a priority for next year's legislative session, as are immigration and women's reproductive rights — all necessary to counter President Donald Trump's conservative agenda, state Sen. Sharon Nelson said.

But all of that will fall in line behind the Washington State Voting Rights Act, their version of the federal Voting Rights Act that Democratic lawmakers have tried — and failed — to enact several years running. It would repeatedly pass the Democratic-controlled House, but falter in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The odds changed on Nov. 7 when Manka Dhingra, a local prosecutor, beat out her GOP opponent in a special election to represent the 45th District, giving Democrats the majority for the first time since 2012. Her victory would allow the Evergreen State to finally pass progressive policies, she told Seattle's alternative weekly prior to the election, freeing lawmakers and previously-killed legislation from the "handful of people who hold the state senate hostage."

That includes the voting rights bill. It would do away with the state's at-large voting system in local elections, which Democrats say dilutes the voting power of minorities and denies them a chance to elect a representative of their own, if evidence of vote dilution and racially polarized voting is found. It would not affect state elections.

After the Supreme Court gutted the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013, this legislation also aims to give Washington state its own set of voter protections.

"We need to provide every protection that we can because I don't have faith in the current administration in Washington," Nelson said.

However, some state lawmakers see a different motive behind Democrats' bill — and advocate a different solution.

Rep. Matt Manweller, a Republican who represents a rural conservative district in the middle of the state, said he is concerned the bill would increase frivolous lawsuits against localities, particularly small, rural areas.

"Why don't you apply this to the bigger communities where you get a critical mass of voters and we have competitive elections?" he said.

Manweller said he has tried to propose that kind of option, but it was rejected by House Democrats.

He accused Democrats of trying to change the rules to bolster their strength in local races, particularly in areas where he said the party has difficulty winning elections.

"This bill is about money and power and not about minority rights in any way," he said. "If they change the rules they will have a farm team to take on legislative races."

Image: Sharon Nelson

Still, with Democrats in control of the state legislature and the governor's office, Nelson, who is also the state Senate leader, said she's confident the bill will become law.

Currently, in cities around the state, there are no local election districts, which means candidates have to get the votes of an entire city rather than a specific district within a city for seats on the city council or school board.

This has led many towns — particularly with large, or even slim, white majorities — to have little or no minority representation in locally elected bodies, Nelson said.

"In too many jurisdictions, if someone chooses to run, they are likely to lose because of the color of their skin or their surname," said Rich Stolz, the executive director of the Seattle-based immigrant rights group OneAmerica.

In 2012, the Washington State American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Yakima under the federal Voting Rights Act, claiming the voting system discriminated against Latinos. No Latinos held elected office, despite making up roughly 40 percent of the city's population.

In 2014, a federal judge agreed, saying the majority "routinely suffocates" Latino voting preferences. The Washington ACLU was again successful in a similar lawsuit against the city of Pasco.

As a result, several Latino candidates were elected in both cities, most recently in the November election.

The voting rights bill, which is slated to be introduced in the 2018 legislative session, would work similarly to the federal voting rights act, but Nelson said it would make it easier for a resident to sue a city to change from at-large to district-based voting. If challenged by the city, the case would also go through state court rather than federal courts.

"Suing under the federal Voting Rights Act is tremendously expensive and requires years of litigation," said Stolz, the immigrant rights group executive director. "It's very difficult for individuals to challenge voting systems under federal law."

Justin Levitt, a voting rights expert and law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Washington's bill is not necessarily representative of a trend, but rather an example of states moving ahead of the federal government. States such as California and Illinois have their own versions of the federal law, as well.

"The federal Voting Rights Act is very powerful and good at some things," he said. "It could use a state backdrop, and it doesn't surprise me that states would want to put in place their own protections for minority voting rights."

CORRECTION (Nov. 24, 2017, 4:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified a Washington state senator. Her name is Sharon Nelson, not Susan Nelson.

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