PASCO — It’s been four months since Franklin County commissioners were told that their three voting districts are unfair to Latino voters.
Now they have just two months left before a voting rights group intends to sue.
After a month of off-and-on debate, the commissioners are no closer to redrawing their districts or changing how elections are handled.
The three commissioners met last week in an executive session with an attorney they hired to help them respond to the complaint that they are violating the Washington Voting Rights Act.
They came out of the closed-door meeting without announcing any decision after weeks of talking about creating a committee of outsiders to draw the new district boundaries that haven’t changed in nine years.
What isn’t clear is if that plan would meet the demands of attorneys from UCLA’s Voting Rights Project before the April deadline.
The attorneys want the county to create a district that better represents the large Latino population, particularly in east Pasco. They’re also looking for the county to stop using at-large elections to choose commissioners.
The deadline was part of the notice filed by the Voting Rights Project, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Gabriel Portugal, Brandon Morales and Jose Trinidad Corral, who live in Franklin County.
A similar legal challenge in recent years in Pasco and the city of Yakima resulted in wholesale changes in the voting districts and the election of three Latino members to the Pasco City Council. Two had never held an elected office before.
Of the 95,200 people living in Franklin County, U.S. Census Bureau data shows nearly 54% are Hispanic. And Latinos make up more than a third of the voting age population.
Many of the Latino voters live in particular areas of the county. In Pasco they make up 35% of the population, 32% in Mesa and 22% in Connell.
“Because of the county’s discriminatory electoral scheme, Latino citizens have been unable to elect candidates of choice,” says the Voting Rights Project notice. “Indeed, a Latino candidate of choice has not been elected to the Franklin County commission in the past 20 years.”
Recently, Commissioner Clint Didier and newly-elected Commissioner Rocky Mullen were pushing for someone else to redraw the boundaries.
Neither commissioner believes there is a majority Latino section in east Pasco, and haven’t mentioned the specific complaints of the Voting Rights Project during recent meetings.
However, both have said they are concerned about appearing to adjust the boundaries to suit themselves. They have suggested forming a separate committee to come up with maps that the commissioners could consider and approve.
With 2020 census counts expected to be released this year, the county likely already would have needed to redraw district boundaries to balance out Pasco’s rapid growth.
The last time the districts were changed was in 2012.
At the state level, a redistricting commissioner redraws lines for legislative areas to balance population growth. But none of the counties has a similar body, said Franklin County Administrator Keith Johnson.
“There is no current structure in state law that either requires or even spells out how such a committee or commission would function,” Johnson told the commissioners during their Jan. 26 meeting. “It would be a creation of this board to make such a commission.”
While Commissioner Brad Peck supports forming an independent commission, he said it may be too late to avoid the court case. He said he has been warning about a possible legal challenge since 2017.
“I’m just telling you that I don’t think that option still exists,” he said. “I’m happy to go on the record, not because I like the outcome, but because I want people to know that I think there is a lawsuit coming our way. I think this matter is going to be decided in court.”
Voting rights challenge
Matt Barreto, faculty director at the Voting Rights Project, maintains the current system is not fair to the heavily Latino areas in Pasco.
U.S. Census data shows that a majority of the population in the precincts east of Highway 395 are Latino. And some precincts in eastern Pasco are more than 80 percent Hispanic.
“I feel there is a definitely majority Latino district,” he said. “It would require no gerrymandering.”
But because that part of the city is currently divided among the three county commission districts, it makes it nearly impossible for Latino voters to wield power as a voting block.
In November 2020, Ana Ruiz Peralta received about 40% of the votes in her race against Mullen for an open seat on the commission.
Voting Rights Project attorneys say another persistent problem for Latino representation is that all county voters can vote in every race in the general election rather than in just their district’s race.
That issue is not solely about a candidate’s race or even political party.
Barreto said it would be similar to the majority Republican legislative districts being able to pick who they want to represent them in Olympia, but then have the entire state vote in that election.
“Do you want to nominate two finalists and then allow the people in Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia to pick who represents you?” he said. “We want those folks to be the ones that are picked from our communities.”
The attorneys point to a number of county commission races in which the heavily Latino east Pasco precincts voted drastically different than the rest of the county, including Al Yenney’s loss in 2012, Zahra Roach’s 2018 loss and Ruiz Peralta’s campaign last year.
In 2018, Roach, a Pasco Democrat, won in those precincts by sometimes as much as 82%, while Didier received an overwhelming majority in predominately white areas of his district and was elected.
In the heavily Latino east Pasco precinct between Seventh Avenue and South Cedar, Ruiz Peralta received 75% of the vote in the November 2020 primary.
However, Mullen is skeptical, however, noting that Peralta received about the same percentage of votes in the general election as she did in the primary.
Latino voting patterns
After changes in Yakima and Pasco, the 2018 state law gives local governments a way to fix problems that deprive minority groups of a chance to pick a candidate to represent them.
Under federal law, those groups are protected from having their voting rights infringed when districts are drawn to separate voters or when at-large elections remove the chance to pick their own candidate.
Barreto has studied Latino voting patterns in Eastern Washington for more than a decade. The former University of Washington professor has continued his work even after moving to California.
He said he’s seen two trends in Washington’s Latino population. The Hispanic population has grown rapidly but the level of representation continues to lag behind non-Hispanic voters.
The Voting Rights Project became involved with fighting a 2019 proposal to switch Yakima’s City Council to a strong mayor system when people started asking them to intervene in Franklin County, said Sonni Waknin, the managing legal fellow for the project.
Waknin and Barreto said many Washington counties employ both an at-large voting system and don’t take their Latino populations into account when creating their districts.
Barreto said it was an intentional and common practice in the South in the ’50s and ’60s as a way of suppressing minorities from being able to participate in elections.
In the end, that leaves those communities less engaged in politics, because they realize that no matter how they vote they won’t be represented, he said.
When those areas move to a district voting system people are more engaged, Barreto said.
Yakima County is facing a similar legal challenge on how its commissioners are elected.
OneAmerica and Campaign Legal Center sued in July, challenging the at-large elections in the county.
“The government should bring us together, but it is leaving the Latino community behind,” the organizations said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “In order for us to reduce crime and make sure our tax money is being spent wisely, we need to hear from everyone.”
Even before that lawsuit was filed, Yakima County had received a six-month notice from OneAmerica and Campaing Legal Center to change their at-large elections.
Franklin County officials were aware of the issues Yakima County was facing as Franklin started looking in 2020 at redrawing its commission boundaries.
Franklin County already had started planning to redistrict before the Voting Rights Project put it on notice.
Johnson said it was partially a reaction to knowing there were problems with where the district lines are drawn combined with a growing populations.
While several elected officials claim Pasco’s racial makeup is more mixed than it’s being presented, Voting Rights Project attorneys say that people need only look at what happened in Pasco after it faced a similar challenge in 2016.
After years of trying to get onto the Pasco council, a candidate and the ACLU of Washington challenged the city’s at-large elections.
Voting Rights Project attorneys said in that notice that the system was rigged to keep Latinos off the council
The only Latino member of the city council, Saul Martinez had never been challenged in an election. He had been appointed and no one had run against him after that.
Faced with a long legal battle like the one that was being waged in Yakima over its districts and at-large voting system, Pasco tried to reach a quicker and cheaper resolution by making changes to its districts.
Pasco and the ACLU weren’t able to reach an agreement about how many at-large districts there should be, so it went to federal court. A judge agreed to the city’s plan of having six districts that represent six specific areas of the city along with one “at-large” position.
“I think it was both meaningful and it was symbolic,” said Ruben Alvarado, who won his seat in 2017. “There was a great sense of apathy. They didn’t feel like voting was going to make much of a difference because their candidate wouldn’t get past the primary.”
Alvarado’s district is in south Pasco is bordered by the city limits to the east and Highway 395 in the west. He was one of two new Latino council members who joined after the districts were redrawn and a special election held.
Blanche Barajas also was elected to represent a section of Pasco between Court Street and Interstate 182 bordered by Road 33 to the west and Owen Avenue to the east.
Alvarado said he believes the election motivated young people to be more involved in politics and what’s happening in their town.
“I think people wanted people that looked more like them,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s been a really good thing. I think the representation piece was really felt and was really clear.”
Now the Latino members of the council are focusing on the future and how to get more people in their district interested in serving on the city council.