KENNEWICK — In the first election after significant redistricting to empower Latino voices in Franklin County, candidates have been left reeling from losses that saw three appointed Hispanic incumbents lose their seats.
“We’re very disappointed, but it is what it is at this point,” said Gabriel Portugal, president of Tri-Cities League of United Latin American Citizens. “I think we’re still in a bit of shock.”
The results have left some candidates and campaign organizers looking for answers.
Joseph Campos, Rosa Torres and Vincent Guerrero hoped to earn their first full terms after being appointed to vacant seats on the city council and school board.
But a majority of voters rejected their bids and opted to elect their opponents instead.
“I believe the trend is Latinos locally don’t turn out for many of these smaller races because they don’t, in my opinion, feel their voices matter,” said Campos, who ran for a seat representing Pasco City Council’s District 2, where Latinos make up 52% of registered voters.
This fall’s election included local races for city councils, school boards, hospital districts and fire districts. Those races regularly suffer from low voter turnout because they are off-year elections, as opposed to the higher turnout seen during presidential, national and statewide races.
This month about 35% of registered voters returned ballots in Benton County and 27% in Franklin County.
Franklin County’s percentage of Hispanic residents (nearly 55%) is more than double that of Benton County’s (25%), according to July 2022 Census population estimates.
But it’s hard to get a precise picture of turnout among specific demographic groups, aside from age, said Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton.
“We do not track voter returns by ethnicity or any other measure, other than how many we send out and how many we get back,” he told the Herald.
Pasco City Council races
Campos’ District 2 was a sticking point during last year’s redistricting effort after the Tri-Cities League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) claimed that the redrawn district diluted the strength of Latino voters by adding dense white neighborhoods from west Pasco.
The organization claimed approving the redrawn districts could pave the way for a possible legal challenge, but the city moved forward with the map anyway and allowed candidates to run this year using those districts.
They don’t have a full view yet of how few Latinos voted this cycle, Portugal said, but his organization will likely bring their findings to the city.
He said Latinos might not vote for a variety of reasons, including external pressures and a lack of information. He also believes the city and school district should do away with their single at-large seats that include the voters in the entire city in favor of additional district seats.
Leo Perales was the only Latino to win election this cycle in either Richland, Pasco or Kennewick. He won by an overwhelming margin to represent Pasco’s District 3, where only a quarter of voters are Hispanic.
Addressing low Latino turnout is as much a responsibility of the candidates as it is on voters, said Perales, who ran this time with the support of the Franklin County Republican Party.
Many Latino candidates are able to win local elections, he says, but fail to inspire voters to stay civically engaged after they get into office.
Perales, who posts daily to hundreds of followers on his Facebook page, says he plans to be the exception.
“I put it back on Latinos,” said Perales, whose council district turned out 32% of voters. “At the end of the day, Latinos aren’t voting, and they’re not voting because they don’t believe their vote matters.”
Campos says he’s also curious if the financial status of voters correlate in any meaningful way to voter turnout.
“I’m very disappointed by our voter turnout,” he said.
Pasco school races
Across Pasco, turnout in majority Latino voting districts was down compared with citywide and statewide numbers. But some of those races also were noncompetitive.
Pasco School Board incumbent John Kennedy won reelection to his majority Latino district despite very low voter turnout and little pushback from a challenger.
While Latinos make up nearly 77% of voters in school board’s District 2, a mere 16% of eligible voters returned their ballots.
Kennedy, who’s White, said he knocked on more than 2,000 doors in his district of 6,800 voters, and yet barely 1,000 returned their ballots by Nov. 7.
His opponent, Gabriel Lucatero, a Latino father with six kids in the district, dropped his campaign halfway through the election.
Kennedy said many voters were engaged on the issues and raised concerns over school transportation, helping students learn and recover from the COVID pandemic, and the equitable allocation of resources across the school district.
“We definitely had hundreds of different conversations with voters in my district,” Kennedy told the Herald.
Kennedy thinks a few things could explain the low turnout in his district: Pasco School District’s new district-election system went into effect last year; voters without children in schools questioned if they even needed to vote; and some may have left their ballot blank because they felt they couldn’t make an educated decision.
“There was some unfamiliarity with the school board, what it does, why it’s important for our community and why it’s important to participate in these elections,” Kennedy said.
The Nov. 14 school board meeting was the last for Torres and Guerrero. Both gave their farewell addresses at the meeting.
Fighting back tears, Torres said the results were a “wake up call” for community members.
“We cannot allow the stirring of fear, rhetoric or blind party affiliation to override our mandate to do what’s best for our students, our staff and our community. Make no mistake, this is about who does and who does not have power in our community — not some decree about values or even a true desire to ensure the success of our children,” she said.
Torres was appointed to represent all district voters in an at-large capacity. Half of all Pasco School District voters are Latino and yet only a quarter of registered voters weighed in on her race.
She told the Tri-City Herald she believes the affects of voter suppression among the Latino community continue to ripple today and hinder turnout.
“I think it’s also difficult for families with mixed statuses to feel they can participate. I think there’s also still fear of speaking out,” she said, adding later: “There is no one answer that will fix this because it takes participation, it takes interest, it takes awareness.”