The American Civil Liberties Union put Pasco on notice recently for violating the federal Voting Rights Act, but city officials were trying to change the city’s election system long before the ACLU contacted them officially.
Pasco leaders were smart to be prepared because it looks like so far the ACLU is willing to work with them to resolve the issue.
This would be the preferred approach. Pasco officials appear to be doing everything they can to avoid a lawsuit, which is what happened in Yakima and ended up costing the city at least $1.1 million.
In 2012, the ACLU sued Yakima and two years later a federal judge agreed that the city’s voting districts and at-large election system diluted the Hispanic vote and was unconstitutional. The city was ordered to update its voting boundaries to better represent its Hispanic population.
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Now Yakima has seven voting districts and no citywide voting.
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 at-large election system appears to be the sticking point for the ACLU, but ironically, state law does not allow Pasco to change to a purely district-based system.
In its letter to Pasco, the ACLU criticized the city’s at-large election system, saying that last fall “Latina candidates who advanced from the primary election were largely favored by the Latino community, but due to Pasco’s election system, were ultimately unsuccessful in the general election.”
Pasco explored the idea of keeping the votes within each district before the general election instead of opening it up to all city residents, but the Franklin County auditor could not break state law and allow the change.
Unfortunately, a proposal in the state Legislature that would have allowed cities to change their voting method to a single-member district never made it to the Senate floor. The Washington Voting Rights Act (House Bill 1745) cleared the House and made it out of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations and Security, but ended up in the Senate X-file.
It’s not quite the morgue, but it comes close. Bills usually are not reconsidered after being placed in this holding file, but since the governor called a special legislative session, technically it’s possible it could resurface.
Chances are legislators will focus only on budget negotiations, but it would help Pasco out tremendously if this crucial piece of legislation could be resurrected. Without a change in state law, Pasco faces a more complicated path outlined by the state attorney general’s office that could allow a change in voting procedure for the city. But Pasco officials say it would be much simpler if the Washington Voting Rights Act was adopted.
If there is any way our legislators could bring this bill back to life, they should try. Pasco shouldn’t continue to find itself caught between the the federal Voting Rights Act and state law.