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June 28, 2022

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Franklin County lawsuit settlement looks to give Latino voters more of a voice

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May 12—PASCO, Wa. — Latino voters will get a fairer chance to pick a candidate of their choice starting in 2024 under a court settlement reached with Franklin County this week.

County officials and the League of United Latin American Citizens signed off on the agreement this week that ends a year-long battle over the county’s commissioner elections.

“I am really excited about the future,” said Gabriel Portugal, a Pasco resident and the state director of the league. “It will open up opportunities for Latino candidates to actually make it, and that’s what we hope.”

The sentiment was echoed by Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant, who called the decision a win-win for both the Latino community and county. The change guarantees all citizens have a voice in the election process, he said.

“I think this is a just and fair outcome considering the changing demographics that we have had over the years,” he said.

Portugal is one of the three local members of the league to file a lawsuit in April 2021, arguing the districts and election process make it nearly impossible for Latinos in the county to elect a candidate they want.

The legal battle took twists and turns including a previous agreement submitted by county attorneys that two commissioners claimed they were surprised by. It was later retracted.

The new agreement retains the recently approved maps that keeps most of east Pasco, which is heavily Latino, inside of a single district rather than being divided among all three districts, said UCLA Voting Rights Project attorneys.

District 2 is presently represented by Rocky Mullen, who was elected to a four-year term in 2020.

A UCLA Voting Rights Project analysis shows that if the election had been held with the current district lines, Mullen’s opponent, Anna Ruiz Peralta would have received the majority of votes.

So the next time that seat comes up for an election will be in 2024.

District voting change

Along with cementing the map, the settlement changes voting in general elections to district-based voting starting in 2024.

Currently, voters choose a candidate who lives in their district in the primary.

The top-two candidates are then voted on the general election by all voters in the county.

Now, only voters who live in a county commission district will vote in both districts.

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 potential voters.

Many of the Latino voters live in particular areas of the county. In Pasco they make up 35% of the population.

Attorney fee dispute

Also, as part of the settlement, the county agreed to pay $375,000 in attorneys fees to the UCLA Voting Rights Project in three payments

While both sides of the lawsuit said this was a good outcome, there were some who disagreed with the terms.

James Gimenez, a Franklin County resident who asked to join the lawsuit after the first attempt to settle it, raised an issue over the amount of money the parties agreed to.

His attorney, Joel Ard, raised the issue during a hearing Monday to present the settlement to Judge Alex Ekstrom.

Ard looked to cut the $375,000 payment in a third, saying it was much larger than the annual income of most Franklin County residents. He also argued that it was not a large change in how the commissioners elections currently happen.

Francis Floyd, the special prosecutor hired by the county for the case, said the UCLA attorneys had already agreed to not seek the $1.4 million they could for payment.

Ekstrom disagreed with Ard, saying the $375,000 in attorney fees was reasonable.

On the other side, Felix Vargas, who was part of the committee that helped with creating maps for the commissioners to pick from, said the settlement was more of a win for the current system than for Latino voters.

He said the commissioners get to keep nearly the same map while only paying $375,000.

“The irony is this: Had the UCLA project elected to go to trial, it would have quite possibly won on the merits,” he said in a written statement to the Herald.

“To be sure, the UCLA project will seek to portray the settlement as a win for it, seeking to take credit for district-based elections beginning in 2024. But, there is no credit to be had so long as map remains essentially the same.”

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