Judge rules on Pasco redistricting - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Judge rules on Pasco redistricting

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PASCO, WA- Federal Judge Lonny Suko rendered a decision in the case of Glatt v. City of Pasco concerning the redistricting of Pasco's City Council voting districts on Friday, January 27. 

Judge Suko agreed that the City’s proposed plan of a six district, one “at-large” Council election system met the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.  The judge did require that all Council seats be up for election in 2017, with districts 1, 3, 4, and 6 elected to four-year terms, and districts 2, 5, and the at-large seat be initially elected to two-year terms followed by four-year terms thereafter.

“The City is pleased with Judge Suko's thoughtful deliberation and recognition of the efforts of the City to avoid racially-polarized voting, and to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act,” said Mayor Matt Watkins. “With this plan now approved, the City can move ahead implementing an election that most fairly represents everybody. These significant changes represent a positive steady effort and considerable time by the City Council with public input,” he added.

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Currently, the Pasco City Council is made up of five seats where voting is by district in the primary election, but “at-large” in the general election, and two “at-large” seats which are voted city-wide in both the primary and general elections. Along with the overall growth, community demographics have continued to change.  According to U.S. Census data, 20 percent of the population in 1980 was of Latino heritage; today that number is 56 percent. Demographic changes in the city’s voting age population have followed, with approximately one-third of the voting age population identifying as Latino. 

Noting this trend, the City Council took particular care during the 2014-2015 redistricting process to assure that districts in areas more densely populated with Latino voting age citizens be structured in such a way as to maximize the impact of the Latino vote.  Through this process, the City Council recognized the impact of state law which prevents Pasco and cities like it from providing for a district-only based election system in both the primary and general elections, thus limiting the impact of the Latino vote.

In May 2015, the City Council enacted Resolution No. 3635 declaring its intent to pursue a change in state law to allow district based-voting, declaring its continuing intent to provide equal voting opportunities for all of its citizens, and to provide equitable and proportional representation.  A district-based voting system would provide that only the voters residing within the district vote on the district representative, not only for the primary, but also for the general election. The City actively pursued a change in state law through the legislative process during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions; however, the State Legislature has yet to pass a bill that would offer relief.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, in March 2016, notified the City that it believes the City’s current election system, as it fails to provide for district-based elections, violates the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and would seek remedies, including court action, to make the City compliant with the VRA.  The City has been in active negotiations with the ACLU to evaluate the concerns raised, ensure whatever course the City Council elects to pursue will withstand any challenges for violating state or federal law, and to avoid litigation, if possible. 

Since receiving the ACLU’s first communication this spring, Pasco City officials have been consulting with the ACLU to determine the data and the law that must be considered in addressing the alleged violations of the VRA.  Given the fact that state law precludes district-based voting in cities like Pasco, and Pasco’s efforts change state law to allow for greater flexibility have been fruitless, both the City and ACLU agreed that it was necessary to embrace limited litigation in Federal Court as the only available means to bring the force of federal law to remedy the problem that exists as a result of state law.

Under the six district plan, each voter would have the opportunity, in a four year cycle, to vote for two of the City Council seats – the one representative for the district in which the voter resides and the one at-large seat.  Each registered voter would continue to have the option to run for election in a four year cycle to the City Council in either the district position or for the one at-large position.  Three of the six districts in the City would be Latino citizen voting age majority, the same number as in the seven district alternative favored by the ACLU.

The City and the ACLU have spent considerable time and effort over the last year collaborating on this matter.  While differing on the remedy, both the City and the ACLU have worked cooperatively with both sharing the same goal of more representative voting for Pasco.  During his introductory comments during oral arguments in December, Judge Suko recognized the significance of these efforts and thanked both the City and plaintiffs. 

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