The state Legislature let Pasco down last spring, and now the city is suffering the legal consequences.
Pasco officials have been trying to change the city’s election system for well over a year, but have been hindered by state law.
Now, as a last resort, the city is conceding that a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union may be the only way it can legally switch to a district-only voting system.
It is a shame it had to come to this.
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The city has been working with the ACLU to avoid going to court, but getting a federal ruling appears to be the only way to supersede a state law that legislators should have changed months ago when they had the chance.
Pasco officials saw the writing on the wall when the ACLU sued Yakima in 2012 for using an at-large election system, which it claimed diluted the Latino vote and was unconstitutional.
Now Yakima has seven voting districts and no city-wide voting. Currently, Pasco's voting structure is similar to the one that got Yakima into trouble.
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.
When Pasco officials looked into changing its election system to avoid being sued like Yakima, they found that state law prohibited them from using a district-only voting method in the general election.
Last spring, a proposal was moving through the Legislature that would have changed that, allowing cities to switch to single-district voting. But it never made it to the Senate floor, although it cleared the House.
So here we are.
There is a chance the state legislators could come through in the 2017 session and lift the restriction, but Pasco officials say that would be too late to meet the city council’s goal of resolving this issue before the next election cycle.
The city and the ACLU have been working together on drafting a consent decree that defines the problem and the circumstances surrounding it. This document will be discussed at Monday’s city council meeting, and public comment will be taken beforehand.
According to U.S. Census data, 56 percent of Pasco’s population is of Latino heritage, and when it comes to the voting-age population, Latinos make up about 32 percent.
Yet they are woefully underrepresented in city elected positions, according to the ACLU, and that is largely due to the at-large election system.
Although a Latino person has run for a Pasco City Council position almost every election cycle since 1990, no Latino candidate has won a contested race. Councilman Saul Martinez was first appointed in 2010, and ran unopposed in the 2011 and 2013 elections.
The ACLU believes that a system in which all seven seats are elected on a district-by-district vote is the only way to bring Pasco into compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.
But because state voting rules for non-charter cities like Pasco don't allow that method, the city can’t change the system unless the restriction is lifted.
Or a federal court intervenes, which is where Pasco is now headed.
While the lawsuit was expected, it is an unfortunate step. People outside of the Tri-Cities may get a negative impression of Pasco that is undeserved. After all, city officials have done all they could under the circumstances.
Legislators need to remedy this situation next session so no other city is caught in this same legal snare. Surely, the ACLU won’t stop with Yakima and Pasco.
State lawmakers need to do their job and fix this unworkable situation before another city suffers Pasco’s fate.