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The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 makes a state law unnecessary

The admirable cause of civil rights is being misused by partisans in the progressive camp as a tool to bash Republicans. We saw it happen last month in the Inlander, in an opinion column headlined "Blockin' the Vote: How Republicans in Olympia continue to fail our democracy" — as if one party opposes discrimination and the other is in favor. It is a simplistic argument founded on thin air, parroting one of the nobler phrases of the civil rights era — and it is one of the most cynical wedge issues ever devised.

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Washington really does have a Voting Rights Act. You've probably heard of it — it is called the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law was passed by Congress, not the state Legislature, but it applies in all 50 states. Over the last half-century it has done an outstanding job of eliminating blatant forms of discrimination, like poll taxes and literacy tests. It also covers a more subjective form of perceived discrimination, the use of at-large voting or redistricting that could make it harder to elect minority political candidates.

We saw the law used recently in Yakima. The American Civil Liberties Union claimed at-large voting for the city council disenfranchised Latino voters. The city drew new district boundaries and elected Latino candidates for the first time in its history. The ACLU sued under federal law. The ACLU got what it wanted. So why do we need a state law?

That is the real question in the debate. It stumps many of us in the Legislature. We have yet to hear how a state law will make anything better, but there are many reasons to think it will make things worse.

This proposal, modeled after a similar law in California, makes it easier to sue and win, regardless of whether real discrimination is taking place. It eliminates a crucial test under federal law — plaintiffs don't have to prove redistricting will improve anything. It creates a whole new basis for lawsuits — alleged discrimination against people who speak a particular language. And it leaves many terms vague, allowing litigation to determine what the law really means.

Now get this: The proposal allows plaintiffs to recover legal costs from taxpayers when they win, and shields them from having to pay when they lose. In California, this law has meant open season on local governments, right down to school boards and hospital districts. An analysis last year of 25 such lawsuits showed at least $13.8 million in public money has been paid to plaintiffs' attorneys.

These are reasonable concerns, and it's probably why advocates for this legislation never talk about them. Makes it easier to take political potshots. We can be dismayed but not surprised when arguments like these are made — it is an election year. ♦

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