SEATTLE — Ana Ruiz Peralta, a 44-year-old Pasco resident and Mexican immigrant, ran last year for the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, talking about improving roads and mental health services, and being a careful steward of public money.
But those were not the only things motivating the Democrat’s campaign in a part of the state stretching north from the Columbia River through rapidly growing Pasco and across expanses of arid and irrigated farmland. It is an area long dominated politically by white conservatives and agricultural interests.
“We’re now the majority,” Ruiz Peralta said of Hispanics, who make up 54% of the county’s population, with most living in Pasco. Yet, on the three-person Board of Commissioners, she said, “I didn’t see any representation.”
When election results came in, Ruiz Peralta, who chairs the board of a community health center and once served on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said she won by “a landslide” in majority-Latino precincts. But she still came in second in the district-based primary and lost the general, countywide election to Republican cattle rancher Rocky Mullen.
Now, as voting rights battles sweep the country, Ruiz Peralta’s defeat is serving as a case in point in a lawsuit alleging the county’s election system is stacked against Latinos by diluting their voting power. It does so, the lawsuit claims, through districts that divide the Latino population of Pasco into three, with two districts stretching some 40 miles from the city into the county’s rural and sparsely populated northern reaches.
The lawsuit also challenges the county’s hybrid election system, in which candidates run in a district during the primary but are elected in the general by voters across the county. The suit, filed last month in Franklin County Superior Court, seeks to elect candidates by district in both the primary and general.
At-large general elections disadvantage Hispanics because, although they constitute a majority of the county’s population, they make up 34% of eligible voters, according to the UCLA Voting Rights Project, which is helping to represent four plaintiffs, including the League of United Latin American Citizens. In some areas, however, eligible Hispanic voters make up a majority and could sway elections, depending on how districts are drawn
The suit is only the second to make use of a 2018 state voting rights act and, along with the first against Yakima County last July, could serve as a forerunner of litigation throughout a demographically changing state.
New and proposed voting rules in Georgia, Florida and other states, pushed by Republicans citing unproven claims of fraud in the 2020 election, have drawn national attention and charges by Democrats of an effort to disenfranchise people of color.
While such efforts are often associated with the South, voter suppression can occur “anywhere and everywhere,” said Sonni Waknin, a lawyer with the UCLA Voting Rights Project. Chad Dunn, the project’s co-founder and legal director, said Eastern Washington in particular has a history of government discrimination toward a Latino population that has formed the base of its agricultural workforce and grown to become an integral part of the wider community.
“I don’t see it,” said Clint Didier, the former NFL player, onetime tea party activist and current chair of the Franklin County Republican Party who was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2018. Known for bluntness, Didier, who has previously talked about an “invasion” of “illegals” at the border, cites his family as an example of interracial harmony. He has a Hispanic son-in-law.
He contends Ruiz Peralta lost not because she is Latino but because she lacks name recognition. “For crying out loud, I ran five times before I finally won as a county commissioner,” said Didier, an erstwhile candidate for Congress.
He and Mullen, who won the seat, argue the Board of Commissioners needs to wait for 2020 census data before redistricting. States receive detailed local data in the fall. “For us to make a move now, it would look hasty,” Didier said.
The board voted this month to create a redistricting committee that will include members of Pasco and Hispanic chambers of commerce as well as representatives of farm and rancher trade groups.
“We’re just trying to put people in place,” said Didier, who added that the committee would wait for census data before drawing maps and would by its existence ensure that process “is in the hands of the people of Franklin County without any appearance of gerrymandering.”
Commissioner Brad Peck, also a Republican, didn’t support the measure. Stipulating only one Latino group is not enough, he said, and starting a committee from scratch will only delay the process further.
Peck has been calling for new lines to be drawn for several years. “There just hasn’t been any appetite as far as I can see,” he said.
“I’m a retired Air Force officer,” Peck said, explaining his concern that the county is out of compliance with the state voting rights act. “You don’t always like the order, but if it was lawful, you are obligated to follow it.”
The 2018 state act approved by the Legislature arose in part out of a belief that local protections were necessary as the courts chipped away at the federal voting rights act, said Breanne Schuster, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, which advocated for the Washington law.
It also arose because of an odd state law, of provenance nobody seems able to recall, that had said certain cities could not switch from at-large to district elections unless they had done so before 1994. (Seattle, which began phasing in City Council district elections in 2013, is in a larger class of cities adhering to a governing charter and was not bound by the arcane law.) The Washington Voting Rights Act expressly allows jurisdictions to make the change without needing a federal court order.
Six years before the state law passed, the ACLU of Washington filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Yakima. Though vigorously fought, the suit forced district-based City Council elections. In 2015, voters elected three Hispanic women, making history in a city that had never had a Latino council member.
Then, last year, several residents of the area and the advocacy group OneAmerica filed a lawsuit against Yakima County, challenging its at-large general election.
“The political science research on this is pretty clear,” said Jessica Trounstine, a University of California Merced professor who studies local governments. “Switching to district elections immediately results in an increase in people of color on city councils. “
That’s especially true when a minority group is concentrated in certain areas, and that group tends to vote as a bloc. Latino communities, which encompass people from a variety of nations and cultures, follow this pattern a little less than Black communities, according to her research and the result of the Biden-Trump presidential race. But the pattern holds enough to cause momentous change in places like Yakima — and, in time, Pasco.
The first voting rights challenge in Franklin County hit its biggest city, with a current population of 75,000. Pasco was long considered the “ugly duckling” of the Tri-Cities, also encompassing Richland and Kennewick, said Gabriel Portugal, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Leaving discussion of the litigation to lawyers, he talked about the region’s history of stark racism. When Black people arrived at the Hanford site outside Richland to work on the Manhattan Project, the secret undertaking to develop an atomic bomb, government and housing policies pushed them into East Pasco.
After dark, Black people were not allowed to cross the river into Kennewick. A local sheriff made sure of it.
As Latinos started to come to the area, sometimes working at Hanford but largely migrant workers who had followed crops north from Texas, redlining sent them to East Pasco, too. Now primarily Hispanic, it’s a part of town that continues to lack sidewalks, parks and other infrastructure.
Felix Vargas, who moved to Pasco in 1956 when he was 12 and his father got a job on the Northern Pacific Railway, gives the city credit for a voluntary busing program that sent him to west-side schools. Pasco was also an early adopter of bilingual education.
Vargas’ love of the area, with its cool desert nights and what he believes is the best Mexican food in Washington, drew him back in 2012 after a career in the military and foreign service. He founded an advocacy group called Consejo Latino.
He’s noticed a lot of intermarriage — “conservative families, white families, having daughters and sons marry people of other races, primarily Latinos” — that he believes has led people to become more accepting of one another.
But the city has also seen racial tension in recent years, notably in 2015 after police killed a Mexican farmworker, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who officers said had been throwing rocks at passing cars and then at them. The shooting sparked weeks of protests.
It was as the city sought to heal from this shooting that the ACLU of Washington filed suit against Pasco under federal voting rights law.
“There was no acrimony. It was: OK, how do we make this happen?” City Manager Dave Zabell recalled. Schuster, of the ACLU, who worked on the lawsuit, agreed the city “fairly quickly agreed to change the election system.”
A federal judge approved a consent decree that paved the way for Pasco, beginning in 2017, to elect six of seven City Council members by district, and one by an at-large vote.
Saul Martinez, 51, a Mexican American and environmental compliance officer at Hanford who has served on the council since 2010, said he wasn’t immediately sold on a district system. Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, he felt comfortable running citywide and, as a voter, liked having a say in who else would be setting policies affecting the whole community.
But he said he has been pleased by the results of the new system: the election of two more Latinos. “It just opens the door for more diversity,” he said.
In 2020, a council vote made him the city’s first Latino mayor.
The current council, also much younger than under the at-large system, has brought a lot of energy to revitalizing downtown — like East Pasco a center of Hispanic-owned businesses, said newcomer Ruben Alvarado.
Alvarado, a 37-year-old who works for a community development organization, said he’s been trying to get more Hispanic residents engaged in civic life, people who often felt in the past that their voice didn’t matter.
“Even the voter turnout is very, very dismal,” he noted. Roughly 400 people voted in his district in 2017, about the same as the two other majority-Latino districts, while other districts drew between 1,500 and 2,900 voters.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Vargas, who was active in bringing about the lawsuit against the city. He’s not involved in the suit against the county, but supports its aims.
The Franklin County Board of Commissioners, Vargas said, plays an important role in determining where to build up infrastructure and encourage economic development. He’d also like to see the board promote affordable housing and homelessness services at a time of great need caused by COVID-19, which has hit the Latino community especially hard.
“You don’t see the kind of leadership being concerned about that,” he said.
It’s been a hectic couple of years on the board.
Commissioners passed, then rescinded a motion last year to reopen the county despite Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Didier voted against rescinding the motion and soon joined political activist Tim Eyman and a group of small businesses to unsuccessfully sue over pandemic-induced restrictions.
Lately, a complicated backstory revolving around infighting and perceived favoritism led to an aborted attempt by two commissioners to fire the county administrator. And the board in late April unanimously passed a measure reaffirming the First and Second Amendments, which Didier called under attack, seemingly referring to COVID restrictions and gun control proposals.
Meanwhile, the question of redistricting has simmered. County officials drew up several proposed maps, offering various options.
“They were presented to me before I was a commissioner,” Didier said. “Look what they’re trying to do,” he said he was told. “It made all north county one big district.” (A couple of the maps did, a couple of the maps didn’t.) The plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit also have presented a map that consolidates the north county into one district.
Didier argues that makes no sense because the north county has two distinct sides. To the west lie irrigated farms made possible by the Columbia Basin Project, a huge federal enterprise that began bringing water from the Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam after World War II. Didier has one of those farms, growing alfalfa, corn and other crops.
To the east, farmers make use of the county’s naturally arid terrain, growing mostly wheat, which needs little water.
“You have to look at it as two different industries,” said James Alford, president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau and a third-generation farmer who grows mainly potatoes, an irrigated crop, on 2,000 acres he owns and operates in the north county.
Dryland farms, for instance, sprawl over bigger tracts of land, making the area less populated. Even though roads are therefore used less frequently, they’re utterly essential for getting goods to market, Alford said.
Irrigated farms often have multiple harvests per year and spray crops early in the morning or late at night. That creates noise that could generate complaints from urban transplants living nearby — and there are more of them as retirees and escapees from higher-cost locales move in — which is why he said the county’s “right to farm” ordinance is so important.
Despite these distinctions, when Alford explains why some farmers fear overhauling the election system, he talks about a common fear — that new commissioners will come in who will “basically make it almost impossible for farms to be feasible.”
That’s what he said you can see in some liberal Western Washington counties, prone to environmental regulation and housing development that has gobbled up farmland.
The 32-year-old Alford — who lives in Pasco, speaks Spanish, and has an entirely Hispanic workforce he describes as skilled and invaluable — said he doesn’t worry about Latinos coming onto the board but does about someone with an exclusively urban or environmental focus.
“I’m not saying that farming is more important than representation,” he said. But how to change the system, he said, is a delicate topic that entails looking at both the county’s population and its economic interests.
It’s a conversation more cities and counties are likely to have, and it won’t stop with districting and at-large elections.
This month, the Voting Rights Project filed another lawsuit against Yakima, Benton and Chelan county officials, charging their process of matching ballot signatures with those on file is discriminatory. In last November’s election, the counties declared mismatches and rejected ballots signed by people with Spanish surnames at between 3 and 3.9 times the rate of those with Anglo names, according to a complaint filed with U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington.
It’s a complicated issue that can involve voters alternating between print and cursive signatures, or formal and informal ones, and could benefit from voter education, said Yakima and Chelan election officials, though Chelan County Auditor Skip Moore questioned assumptions about ethnicity based on the sound of people’s names.
Vargas predicts more counties, like Grant and Walla Walla, will face voting rights challenges related to their sizable Latino populations.
“Change,” he said, “needs to be brought about across the board.”