Do you think city council candidates in the general election should be picked only by their district’s voters, or should it remain a citywide process?
The Washington Attorney General’s Office wants your input.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday he will weigh in on a request from Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, relating to Pasco’s proposed district-only voting system. It may be several months before Ferguson releases a formal opinion.
The city has been exploring the idea of keeping the votes within each district for the general election.
The voting district selects the top two candidates in the primary election if three or more file for a specific seat. The two candidates with the most votes then move on to the November election, with the voting open to all city residents.
Pasco wants to know whether provisions of the Federal Voting Rights Act — which potentially conflict with state law — could allow for the city to change to district-only voting.
“The city is appreciative of Senator Roach for her assistance in obtaining the attorney general’s opinion,” Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell said in a news release. He added that “this is an important matter for Pasco and other communities in Washington state.”
A number of Washington cities have been reviewing their election processes after a federal judge ordered the city of Yakima to change the way it holds council elections. The judge said Yakima’s districts weren’t “equally open to participation” for Latino voters.
The ruling stemmed from a successful lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that Yakima’s election system violates the Federal Voting Rights Act. The city has spent more than $1 million defending the voting rights case.
Meanwhile, Yakima’s attorneys have filed a request with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay of this year’s elections.
Yakima also plans to file a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court for a Texas case that could effectively reverse the outcome of the Yakima ruling, and asked the 9th Circuit to stay its appeal of the ACLU case until the nation’s highest court decides the Texas matter.
Pasco sought to avoid those problems when it revised the council voting boundaries to include two districts with Hispanic majorities.
The city has redrawn its council boundaries every two years to reflect equal representation because of growth to the west. Under the city code, the population within each district must not deviate by more than 10 percent from other districts.
Pasco has five districts and two at-large seats held by council members who live anywhere within the city.
The 2010 U.S. Census showed Pasco’s population is 56 percent Hispanic, with the voter-age population at 31 percent Hispanic.
City staff and some residents have said citywide elections dilute and marginalize the voting rights of minority groups in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
But some counter that even if a candidate is selected to represent the best interests of their specific district or neighborhood, they also are seated on the council to make decisions affecting the entire city.
Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton told the city council and staff in April he doesn’t have the authority to conduct a district-based general election because it would violate Washington law and his oath of office. He will continue to follow state law as it stands until Pasco makes an official policy decision and his office is given the legal go-ahead to make a change, he said.
Voting regulations for noncharter cities, like Pasco, are dictated by procedures set by the state.
A bill intended to allow noncharter cities to change their voting method to single-member districts was before the state Legislature this session, but it stalled in Olympia.
In May, the Pasco City Council voted 5-2 in favor of asking Ferguson for an opinion.
A request for formal published opinions from the attorney general can only come from state legislators, statewide elected officials, appointed heads of state agencies, boards or commissions, and county prosecutors.
Roach asked: “May a noncharter code city subject to RCW 35A.12.180, having a large minority population, adopt a district-based general election procedure to avoid a potential violation of Section 2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act?”
In her letter to Ferguson, she said the issue “results in a direct conflict for those cities with large minority populations to comply with both the preemptive Federal Voting Rights Act requirements for proportionate and equal representation, and the state statute construed to require at-large voting at general elections.”
“Since this issue has statewide consequences, your formal opinion is respectfully requested,” she added.
Zabell has said council members in some Washington cities are elected entirely by districts, but that is because they were grandfathered in when the state law changed more than two decades ago.
The Attorney General’s Office will accept notices of interest in commenting until July 8.
Ferguson’s decision will not affect the 2015 general election.