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Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds the State’s Voting Rights Act

The high court forcefully rejected a constitutional challenge to state law protections against discrimination in local elections.


The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the Washington Voting Rights Act in a unanimous decision that considered the constitutionality of the landmark state law. Portugal v. Franklin County makes clear that Washington voters facing discrimination in local elections can turn to state courts under state law for redress. The case is a major victory for Latino voters in the state who challenged how Franklin County elects county commissioners. But it is also a powerful rejection of arguments that seek to create friction between the U.S. Constitution and state law voting rights protections.

The dispute arose in 2020 when Latino voters in Franklin County filed a Washington Voting Rights Act claim in state court to challenge the county’s at-large system for electing commissioners to the governing board. Because a majority of the county’s electorate is white and consistently opposes Latino-favored candidates, Latino voters have never been able to elect a representative to the three-member commission despite constituting more than a third of eligible voters. According to plaintiffs, the county-wide election system, the political conditions in Franklin County, and a history of discrimination and racial disparities combined to deprive Latino voters of an equal opportunity to elect preferred candidates.

Franklin County ultimately settled the case and agreed to draw single-member districts that, for the first time, gave Latino voters a pathway to electoral success. But a county resident intervened in the case to challenge the constitutionality of the Washington Voting Rights Act. On appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, the intervenor argued that the law violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Washington Constitution, among other arguments.

The challenge centered on the Washington Voting Rights Act’s liability standard, which does not require plaintiffs to demonstrate that impacted voters are sufficiently numerous and geographically concentrated to form an electoral majority in a district. This inquiry is part of the legal test for claims under the federal Voting Rights Acts, and the intervenor argued that absent such a requirement, Washington’s law improperly makes race a primary consideration without sufficient justification and thereby violates the 14th Amendment.

The Washington Supreme Court rejected this assertion and reasoned, as the Brennan Center’s friend-of-the-court briefargued, that the federal geographic compactness requirement reflects federal courts’ commitment to district-based solutions as the default under the federal Voting Rights Act. “Because the WVRA contemplates a broader range of remedies than Section 2 [of the federal Voting Rights Act], a WVRA plaintiff can state a redressable injury under a broader range of circumstances than a Section 2 plaintiff,” wrote Justice Mary Yu for the unanimous court. Because Washington’s statute does not require drawing voting districts to address a violation, the court found that requiring plaintiffs to be geographically compact enough for a majority-minority district would be both “irrelevant and unnecessary.”

The positive ripple effects of the Portugal decision could be far-reaching, particularly in other states that have voting rights protections in state law. The number of such states has increased in recent years. Just last week, Connecticut joined the ranks of California, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington when Gov. Ned Lamont signed the John. R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of Connecticut into law. Proposals in other states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have also been introduced.

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.

Yurij Rudensky is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sonali Seth is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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