SEATTLE – The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is following up on a lawsuit that forced voting changes in Yakima with a similar case against Pasco, saying that the way the city runs its elections weakens the political voice of Latinos.
Unlike Yakima, though, Pasco officials are welcoming the lawsuit. They say they want to change their election system so Latinos are better represented on the City Council, but state law prohibits them from making those changes.
Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins said the federal lawsuit filed Thursday could pre-empt the state law and force Pasco to switch to district elections, where candidates are elected by their neighborhood district rather than having to run citywide.
Even though Latinos make up about one-third of the voting-age population in Pasco, a city of 62,000, no Latino has ever won a contested City Council election, the ACLU of Washington noted in the lawsuit. One Latino, Saul Martinez, sits on the seven-member council; he was appointed to an open seat in 2010 and has twice run unopposed.
“You’ve got one Latino council member and you have a community that’s a high percentage Latino,” Watkins said. “There’s a fair question about whether there’s vote dilution going on, and we want to do what’s right.”
Pasco’s “racially polarized voting” makes it inordinately difficult for Latino candidates to win contested elections, the ACLU’s lawsuit said, and it would be easier for them to win if they only had to run in their own districts.
The organization’s lawsuit against Yakima forced that city to switch to such district voting, and last fall, Yakima elected three Latinas to the City Council – the first time it had elected any. Yakima’s unsuccessful effort to fight the case cost it $3 million in legal costs and fees, a fact that wasn’t lost on Pasco officials.
Pasco is classified as a “non-charter code city.” State law prohibits cities with that type of classification from conducting district elections unless those systems were set up before 1994. Pasco officials have pressed for a change in state law that would allow them to switch to district voting, without luck.
Instead, the city now plans to join the ACLU in asking a judge to declare that the city is violating the federal Voting Rights Act, which would clear the way for changes that would be overseen by the court – “the only available means to bring the force of federal law to remedy the problem that exists as a result of state law,” the city said in a news release Thursday.
The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of Bertha Aranda Glatt, a lifelong Pasco resident who is Hispanic and who challenged Watkins in 2015, garnering 34 percent of the vote to his 66 percent.
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