The recent federal court decision approving Pasco’s plan to change its election system was welcome affirmation for the city.
Pasco administrators had been trying for a couple years to alter the way city elections are held so the Latino vote is not diluted.
But their attempt to do the right thing was thwarted by state law. Getting sued in federal court, unfortunately, was the only way to make the changes.
That Senior Judge Lonny Suko favored Pasco’s proposal over the one preferred by the American Civil Liberties Union acknowledges Pasco’s serious attempt to make the fix.
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Lawsuits are never pleasant, but this particular one was as amicable as one can be.
Currently, Pasco has five city council positions represented by voting districts and two at-large positions. Voters are limited by district in the primary election, but in the general election, the vote is citywide.
The ACLU contends that at-large districts and citywide voting weakens the Latino vote, and is unconstitutional under the federal Voting Rights Act.
In 2012, the ACLU sued Yakima over its voting system, which was similar to Pasco’s, and won.
Pasco city officials tried to be proactive and sought to change their election system, but found that state law prohibited it from changing to a district-only process.
Last year, a proposal moving through the Legislature would have allowed Pasco to make the switch, but it never made it to the Senate floor, despite passing the House.
So without legislative help, Pasco found itself caught between state law and demands by the ACLU. City officials noted that a ruling by a federal judge would be the only way they could legally supersede state restraints. So they expected it when the ACLU sued.
Pasco proposed six voting districts and one at-large seat, which would be the only seat voted on citywide. Of the six voting districts, three would have a Latino majority.
The ACLU wanted seven separate voting districts, no at-large seats and no citywide voting.
Judge Suko said Pasco’s plan was “legally acceptable.”
ACLU lawyers had argued Pasco’s proposal was a step in the right direction, but still inadequate.
Still, Bertha Aranda Glatt, who led the lawsuit against Pasco on behalf of the ACLU, called the judge’s decision a “win” for all Pasco residents.
And, Leo Perales, spokesman for the Latino Coalition Tri-Cities, said the group was pleased with Suko’s decision, and that even though the group favored the ACLU plan, they are optimistic.
People with Latino heritage currently make up 56 percent of Pasco’s population. Even though a Latino person has run for a Pasco City Council position almost every election since 1990, no Latino candidate has won a contested race.
The two Latino members of the current city council were appointed. Chi Flores has only been in his position for about three months. Saul Martinez has run unopposed in two elections since his appointment.
Suko has ordered that all city council seats will be up for election later this year under the new system.
Being forced to change how candidates are elected to the city council could have been an ugly fight.
For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t.
That’s a credit to the cooperative spirit of Pasco city officials, and the Pasco residents who fought for change.