Complaint utilizes Washington Voters Rights Act, a recently passed state law, in hopes of fixing local elections at the county level

In Special Session, Dec. 5., the Colville Business Council approved a resolution to issue a complaint under the 2018 Washington Voters Rights Act, as stated in Resolution 2019-744, “in order to ensure fair representation of the membership of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in local government.”

The resolution continues to note, “The current electoral system present in local government has resulted in an improper dilution of voting power for the counties present within the bounds of the Colville Reservation. Through the filing of a complaint, the goal of the Tribes is to remedy electoral issues so that tribal members have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and/or influence the outcome of an election.”

The resolution passed unanimously, and then Jan. 13, a number of CBC members, along with voting rights advocate Karen Hardy, met with the Ferry County Commissioners during their monthly meeting in Republic to discuss the complaint.

What is the WVRA?

The Legislature approved the Washington Voting Rights Act in 2018, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law June 7, 2018.

The legislation itself states the intent is “to promote equal voting opportunity in certain political subdivisons and establishing a cause of action to redress lack of voter opportunity.”

The legislation states, “The legislature finds that electoral systems that deny race, color or language minority groups an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice are inconsistent with the right to free and equal elections as provided by Article I, section 19 and Article VI, section 1 of the Washington state Constitution as well as protections found in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution.”

A publication from the American Civil Liberties Union further notes, “The Washington Voting Rights Act will ensure all communities have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice in local elections. For government to be accountable, all voices need to be heard. But some election systems prevent all neighborhoods from being represented in local government. The WVRA empowers local governments to fix this widespread problem.”

The ACLU publication states that 99 percent of local elections across the state use at-large voting systems in which communities vote in blocs that exclude minority community from influencing local elections and prevent the minority communities from electing representatives that share their viewpoint. The ACLU publication further notes the WVRA allows local government to fix the problem by voluntarily changing their voting systems, before the issue rises to the court systems.

What does this look like in Ferry County? 

During the meeting between CBC and Ferry County Commissioners, voting rights advocate Karen Hardy handed out a packet of papers that included both the ACLU publication as well as a data supporting a statement that “the ‘at-large’ voting system used in Ferry County blocks Native American representation in local government.”

“Currently the population on Colville Tribal Land in Ferry County is 1700 and is made up of 75 percent Native or People of Color with 880 active registered voters. Commissioner District 3 adds 617 mostly non-Native voters. Which dilutes the percentage of people of color votes to 46 percent turning a three-quarter majority population into a minority population. Further exacerbating the problem Commissioner District 2 removes another 58 voters from tribal land further lowering the percentage of people of color to 40 percent. This is systematic voter suppression.”

The data further notes that the top-two primary elections for the commissioner positions are held within district while the “at-large” general election allows the entire county to elect district representatives.

“If [the voters in district three] are not happy with their commissioner, they can’t hold them accountable with an election,” said Hardy, speaking to county commissioners Nathan Davis and Johnna Exner. “They can’t say, ‘Well, next time we will vote them out.’ They can’t actually vote them out.”

“Since 2008, current Commissioner Mike Blankenship has lost in every primary election he has entered,” reads Hardy’s packet. “Primary Elections are district based voting. When it comes to the General Election he has prevailed since 2012 due to the ‘at-large’ system in place. Had district voting been in place in 2012 he would’ve lost 211 votes instead of winning by 31 votes and in 2016 he would’ve lost by 5 votes instead of winning by 377.”

“The reason we have a republic is that we believe in a representative government,” said Hardy. “We believe we should hold our officials accountable. The system we have right now in Ferry County does now allow that to happen.”

Blankenship officially retired from the Ferry County Board of Commissioners, Jan. 10.

A remedy

In their complaint, the tribes suggested the county change from an ‘at-large’ general election to a ‘in-district’ general election, according to Hardy.

“They provided a complaint and suggested a remedy to make it an ‘in-district’ election,” said Hardy. “They said that would be a remedy that would be acceptable to them and that would allow them to have their option of county commissioner.”

The WVRA is unique in that it allows local control over fixing such problems, according to the ACLU publication.

“The WVRA is intended specifically to impact local elections  – state races are not included,” reads the ACLU publication. “Nor does it change results of past elections. Rather, it helps local governments fix the exclusion problem by allowing them to voluntarily change their voting systems. The WVRA also allows ample time to act before going to court. This avoids expensive federal litigation and gives local governments the ability to fix their electoral systems without interference from a federal court.”

Ferry County has 180 days to respond to the complaint or accept the suggested remedy of changing the general election to in-district voting.

Any change would be expected to go into effect in the 2021 election cycle.

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