City Council Election System
The Pasco City Council was made up of five seats where voting was by district in the primary election, but "at-large" in the general election, and two "at-large" seats which were voted city-wide in both the primary and general election. This system had seen numerous district boundary adjustments, a process called redistricting, over past several election cycles in response to the rapid growth of the city. Along with the overall growth, community demographics have changed. According to U.S. Census data, 20 percent of the population in 1980 was of Latino heritage; in 2016 that number was 56 percent. Demographic changes in the city's voting age population have also occurred, with an estimated 36 percent 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. However, through this process, the City Council recognized the impact of state law preventing Pasco and "code" cities like it from providing for a district-only based election system in both the primary and general elections which limited 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 did not pass a bill that would offer relief in those sessions.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, in March 2016, notified the City that they believed the City's election system, as it fails to provide for district-based elections, violated the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and would seek remedies, including court action, to make the City compliant with the VRA. The City engaged in active negotiations with the ACLU to evaluate the concerns raised, ensure whatever course the City Council elected to pursue would withstand any challenges for violating state or federal law, and avoid litigation.
After receiving the ACLU's first communication, Pasco City officials consulted with the ACLU to determine the data and the law that must be considered in addressing the violations of the VRA. Given the fact that state law at that time precluded district-based voting in cities like Pasco, and Pasco's (and others) efforts change state law to allow for greater flexibility had been fruitless, both the City and ACLU agreed that it would be 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 the then-current state law.
Following the filing of a complaint in Federal Court by the ACLU, alleging violation of the VRA, the City and ACLU jointly proposed a "Partial Consent Decree" which served to identify the likely violation of the VRA and establish jurisdiction of the Court to order an appropriate remedy to address the violation. The City Council approved the submission of the Partial Consent Decree at the August 15, 2016 Regular Meeting.
Upon the approval of the Partial Consent Decree, the City and ACLU met to determine if agreement could be reached on a voting plan as remedy for the VRA issues. Since an agreement on a remedy was not reached, the Federal Court heard arguments from each side on December 7, 2016, with the goal that Court approval of any plan could occur well in advance of the May 2017 City Council candidate filing deadline.
With the above approach in mind, and Council goals of a thorough public outreach effort during the process and completion of the process as far in advance of the 2017 election cycle as possible, this has been the schedule for the process:
- August 8, 2016 – Council workshop on proposed Consent Decree
- August 15 – Council action to approve Partial Consent Decree
- September 6 – Public hearing on alternative voting systems
- September 19 – Council action on preferred voting system
- October 3 – Public hearing on Council district boundary alternatives
- October 10, 2016 – Council action on preferred Council district boundaries
The public hearing on September 6, 2016 on alternative voting systems included the concept of district-based voting, including the number of Council seats which should be elected by District.
Under a district-based voting scenario, the Council evaluated potential options for consideration:
- Five districts with two at-large seats
- Six districts with one at-large seat
- Seven districts with no at-large seats
The Council, in the September 19, 2016 meeting, chose the six district, one at-large seat option as the preferred alternative.
The public hearing on October 3, 2016 considered the boundaries under the preferred six district system, with Council action on preferred boundaries on October 10. After Council action, the preferred plan and district boundaries were presented to the federal court for review, potential change, and final decision.
Following these actions, the Federal Court heard arguments from the City and the ACLU on December 7, 2016 on the preferred remedies for the VRA violation.
On January 27, 2017, Judge Suko rendered a decision; he 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 2017 election resulted in 5 new City Council candidates winning seats.
The new Councilmembers elected:
- Blanche Barajas, District 1, elected to a four year term
- Ruben Alvarado, District 2, elected to a two year term
- Pete Serrano, District 4, elected to a four year term
- David Milne, District 5, elected to a two year term
- Craig Maloney, District 6, elected to a four year term
Two incumbent Councilmembers retained their seats:
- Saul Martinez, District 3, elected to a four year term
- Matt Watkins, At-Large, elected to a two year term
The City Council held a Special Meeting on December 11, 2017 to swear-in the incoming Councilmembers and recognize outgoing Councilmembers.
The new Councilmembers formally assumed office on January 1, 2018.
"This matter is extremely complicated and of great importance to our community as it changes how City Council members are elected," said Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins. "Council's adoption of a 6 district and 1 at-large plan accomplishes several goals the City Council has been working on to avoid racially polarized voting in Pasco and promote participation. These significant changes represent a positive steady effort and considerable time by the City Council with public input," he added.
For more information, contact the City Manager's office at (509) 545-3404.