ACLU sues Pasco, saying election system violates federal Voting Rights Act

Bertha Aranda Glatt speaks Thursday during a press conference announcing the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the city of Pasco.
Bertha Aranda Glatt speaks Thursday during a press conference announcing the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the city of Pasco. Tri-City Herald

A lifelong Pasco resident who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2015 wants the city to change its election system to give Latinos an equal opportunity in local politics.

Bertha Aranda Glatt filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court, claiming Pasco’s at-large election system violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The 10-page complaint names the city of Pasco, Mayor Matt Watkins and the five sitting council members.

Glatt is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has had multiple conversations with city officials over the past seven months trying to remedy the issue outside of the courts.

“The Latino community is a significant portion of the city’s population, yet their interests are not adequately represented on the Pasco City Council,” said La Rond Baker, an ACLU staff attorney. “All voices of the community need to be represented on the City Council.”

City Manager Dave Zabell said legal action by the ACLU was anticipated, because Pasco is prohibited under state law from making changes to its electoral process.

The quickest path to a resolution is to have a federal judge come in, work through the process with Pasco and the ACLU, and ultimately supersede state law with a federal ruling, Zabell said.

The hope is to make any changes, if necessary, before the May 2017 filing period for the next election cycle.

“While we all chose to live in Washington state, this is America first,” Zabell said. “So it makes sense that in a conflict between state and federal law, we look to the feds for resolution.”

Pasco operates with five council districts and two at-large seats held by council members who live anywhere within city limits.

Each voting district selects its top two candidates in the primary election if there are three or more candidates for a specific seat. Then the voting opens up to all city residents in the general election.

“Unfortunately, due to voting trends in Pasco elections, the at-large election system makes it impossible for the Latino community to elect a candidate of their choice to the City Council, to represent their interest in local governance and local politics,” Baker said.

Engaging in the political process and voting are fundamental rights, upon which our democratic society is built, Baker said.

However, the current voting scheme dilutes the Latino community’s voting power because of racially polarized bloc voting patterns, the ACLU said.

“It’s time for a change in Pasco,” she said.

Latino residents are the majority in Pasco, at 54 percent of the population. When it comes to the voting-age population, Latinos comprise about 32 percent.

The ACLU proposes that Pasco move to seven single-member districts, said Baker and colleague Breanne Schuster.

Under that system — similar to the one adopted in Yakima after a lengthy and expensive ACLU lawsuit — candidates would only be voted on by district residents, in both the primary and general elections.

“The ACLU believes that a system in which all seven seats are elected on a district basis is the best way to bring Pasco into compliance with the law and ensure that the Latino population’s vote is meaningful in City Council elections,” Schuster said.

On Thursday, facing a room full of media representatives and Pasco civic leaders and business owners, Glatt became emotional as she explained that her parents are Mexican immigrants, and all members of her family are proud Pasco residents.

She chose to serve as the plaintiff in this civil action to ensure the Latino community has meaningful access to City Council representation, she said.

“At-large voting favors the existing council person,” Glatt said. “We have council people who have been there for many years. When I was a candidate, I heard from many residents that change is needed in Pasco, and I truly believe that.”

Glatt challenged Watkins for an at-large seat on the City Council in 2015.

In the November election, she received 2,400 votes, or 34 percent, to Watkins’ 4,615 votes, or 66 percent, according to the Franklin County Auditor’s website.

Glatt said at the time that she felt her city needs to be more representative of the people it serves, and to capitalize on its resources and diversity.

Those polarized voting patterns have allowed elected officials to remain unresponsive to the needs of the Latino community, because they’re not afraid of consequences at the polls, the lawsuit says.

The ACLU notes that even though a Latino person has run for a Pasco City Council position almost every election cycle since 1990, no Latino candidate has ever won a contested race.

Councilman Saul Martinez was first appointed in 2010. He ran unopposed in the 2011 and 2013 elections.

Pasco is one of several Washington cities that have been reviewing their election processes since a federal judge ruled that the city of Yakima’s old system violated federal election law by routinely suppressing Latino interests.

Voting regulations for non-charter cities like Pasco are dictated by procedures set by the state.

Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton has said he doesn’t have the authority to conduct a district-based general election, because it would violate Washington law and his oath of office.

The City Council also asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson to weigh in on the issue.

In his opinion, Ferguson said cities do have some discretion to deviate from state law in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

However, those cities will need “substantial research and factual support” to adopt a new election system, and must be prepared for a potential challenge in court, Ferguson said.

An attempt at legislation that would have given municipalities the power to change their electoral processes failed to gain traction earlier this year in the Legislature.

And then in March, the ACLU sent a letter to Pasco officials offering to work with the city to evaluate its legal and political options.

Zabell wants to make it clear that the city does not have a preference about staying in the five-district, two-at-large system or going to seven districts.

The city is in the process of evaluating whether the current system meets the federal Voting Rights Act. The public will have the opportunity to give its opinion, he said.

The City Council will discuss the matter at its Aug. 8 workshop meeting, and possibly take some action on Aug. 15.

From there, Pasco plans to hold public hearings in September and October on alternative voting systems and district boundaries.

“District-based voting is going to be a big change to how we elect City Council members here,” Zabell said. “And this involves the entire public, not just the ACLU and the city agreeing and having a judge stamp it ‘Approved.’”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531, @KristinMKraemer