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 election. This system has seen numerous district boundary adjustments, a process called redistricting, over the 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; today that number is 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. Through this process, the City Council recognized the impact of state law preventing Pasco and cities like it from providing for a district-only based election system in both the primary and general elections which limits 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 they believe 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 avoid litigation.
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 agree that it will 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 state law.
Following the filing of a complaint in Federal Court by the ACLU, alleging violation of the VRA, the City and ACLU have jointly proposed a “Partial Consent Decree” which would serve 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 Regular Meeting.
Upon the approval of the Partial Consent Decree, the City and ACLU will meet to determine if agreement could be reached on a voting plan as remedy for the VRA issues. If a joint plan can be agreed to, it would be submitted to the Court for final approval. If no agreement is reached, the Court would hear arguments from each side and make a decision on the final plan. It is envisioned that Court approval of any plan would 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 is the current schedule for the process to move forward:
-October 3 – Public hearing on Council district boundary alternatives
-October 10 – Council action on preferred Council district boundaries
The public hearing on October 3 will consider the boundaries under the preferred six district system, with Council action scheduled for October 10. After Council action, the preferred plan and district boundaries will be presented to the federal court for review, potential change, and final decision.
“This matter is extremely complicated and of great importance to the community as it will change how we select our Council representation,” said City Manager Dave Zabell. “The City Council has provided multiple opportunities for public input and encourages community members to attend.”