The Pasco City Council has approved the submission of documents to a federal judge agreeing that the city’s at-large system for electing council members violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit earlier this month, saying the current system weakens the political voice of Hispanics, who make up a large percentage of the population of the city.
“We are very pleased that the Pasco City Council has recognized that their current election system violates federal law,” ACLU attorney La Rond Baker said Tuesday.
The ACLU will now work with Pasco officials to come up with an elections system that satisfies the Voting Rights Act.
If they cannot, the matter will return to federal court. The ACLU contends that any solution must incorporate dividing the City Council into seven single-member districts.
The ACLU recently won a similar case against the city of Yakima, which also has a large Hispanic population.
The lawsuit involving Pasco was filed Aug. 4 in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington on behalf of Bertha Aranda Glatt, a Hispanic resident of the city.
“I’ve lived in Pasco my whole life and am so excited to see the Latino community finally be able to elect someone to the City Council to represent their interests,” Glatt said in a news release from the ACLU.
The lawsuit contends the at-large system of electing City Council members diluted the voting power of Latinos, who comprise about 32 percent of the voting-age population in the city of 60,000 people. Latinos make up about 54 percent of all residents of Pasco.
All members of the Pasco City Council are elected at-large in the November election, a system that has made it nearly impossible for the Latino community to win seats.
No Latino candidate has ever won a contested election for the City Council.
Unlike Yakima officials, Pasco leaders welcomed the lawsuit. They said they wanted to change their election system so Latinos are better represented on the City Council, but state law prohibits them from making those changes.
“This issue is about all those participating in the electoral process having an equal say in who represents them on the City Council, and, if running for office, having an equal chance,” City Manager Dave Zabell said.
One Latino, Saul Martinez, sits on the Pasco City Council; he was appointed to an open seat in 2010 and has twice run unopposed.
The organization’s lawsuit against Yakima forced that city to switch to such district voting last fall. Three Latinas were elected to the City Council – the first time any Latinos had been elected.
Yakima spent $3 million on its unsuccessful legal effort to fight the case – 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.
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