Pasco officials are hopeful that a bill authorizing district-based elections could be part of a budget compromise in the state Legislature’s special session.
The Washington Voting Rights Act failed to make it out of the Senate before the regular session wrapped March 10 in Olympia.
House Bill 1745 would have given Pasco and other municipalities the power to change their electoral processes so city council candidates are selected by districts, instead of by citywide vote.
As it stands now, Pasco may have to rely on a recent state Attorney General’s Office opinion that says noncharter cities can deviate from state law to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act if they have “a strong basis in evidence” to show it is necessary.
However, that also brings its own legal risks.
“It would be nice if we had a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the (state) Voting Rights Act,” City Manager Dave Zabell said. “The bill passing simplifies the process a lot for us. It does not have all the ‘if’ conditions that the attorney general’s opinion does.”
It would be nice if we had a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the (state) Voting Rights Act.
Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell
Also complicating the issue is a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on a Texas case that is expected to define “one person, one vote” by determining whether districts could be drawn by eligible voter population rather than total population.
That “could change the perspective on things,” said Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel.
Pasco has five districts and two at-large seats held by council members who live anywhere within the city.
Each 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 general election, with the voting open to all city residents.
The council boundaries are redrawn every two years to reflect equal representation, with Pasco’s population coming in at 55 percent Hispanic.
The last redistricting, approved one year ago, resulted in Latino majorities in two of the five voting districts.
City staff and some residents have said citywide elections dilute and marginalize the voting rights of minority groups in violation of federal law.
ACLU legal director Emily Chiang said Pasco should have seven districts with no at-large members, and those representatives should only be elected by their district.
A district-only system could result in representation more reflective of the neighborhood, and would make it more affordable for people to run because district candidates wouldn’t need to post signs or distribute fliers throughout the city.
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.
Voting regulations for noncharter cities such as Pasco are dictated by procedures set by the state.
Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton told Pasco last year that he does not have the authority to conduct a district-based general election because it would violate Washington law and his oath of office.
Beaton will continue to follow state law until Pasco makes an official policy decision and his office is given the legal go-ahead to make a change, he said.
That led to the Pasco City Council asking Attorney General Bob Ferguson for an opinion.
In January, Ferguson said cities like Pasco do have some discretion, but will need “substantial research and factual support” to adopt a new election system, and must be prepared for a potential challenge in court.
Pasco was one of several Washington cities that started reviewing their election processes in 2015 after a federal judge ruled that the city of Yakima’s old system violated federal election law by routinely suppressing Latino interests.
Yakima has spent more than $1.1 million defending the case to date and is appealing the judge’s order to pay the plaintiff, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, $1.8 million in legal costs. The city is expected to drop that appeal in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Yakima’s first council election since the ruling resulted in three Latino candidates taking office.
The Washington ACLU sent a letter to Pasco officials earlier this month offering to work with the city to evaluate its legal and political options, and “ensure legally adequate representation for all of Pasco’s constituents.”
In the letter, ACLU legal director Emily Chiang said the council should have seven districts with no at-large members, and those representatives should only be elected by their district to avoid diluting the vote.
The city has not concluded if there is a violation or potential violation, but is awaiting the ACLU’s analysis to help it move forward, Zabell said.
Pasco is between a rock and a hard place because we have state law that says this, and federal law says that, and they’re somewhat in conflict.
Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel
The city’s been encouraged to make a decision about the voting system by the end of the year and start the process if any changes will be necessary, he said.
The city has used demographer Peter Morrison in the past to understand Pasco’s makeup and its respective precincts. Morrison helped frame the five districts along precinct boundaries.
Officials are keeping Morrison updated on what’s happening in the state and with the ACLU. They likely will ask him to help prepare a response to the ACLU and a proposal for council’s consideration, as well as make changes to district boundaries if Pasco takes action in advance of the 2017 election, Strebel said.
If Pasco has to admit it is in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act in order to follow the attorney general’s opinion, it will leave the city open to potential litigation.
“When you do that you’re pretty much saying, ‘OK, we’re guilty and here’s the reasons we’re guilty,’ ” Strebel said. “So it’s like you’re handing your case to a plaintiff and saying now take us to task.”
Strebel added that it is unfortunate the city is in that position.
“Pasco is between a rock and a hard place because we have state law that says this, and federal law says that, and they’re somewhat in conflict,” he said.