Structural Changes to Create More Diverse Representation
The City of Pasco has often been classified as the fastest growing city in the State of Washington. Since 2000, the city has grown from 32,000 to 72,000 today.
Along with the overall growth, community demographics changed. According to U.S. Census data, 20 percent of the population in 1980 was of Latino heritage; today that number is 56 percent. Demographic changes in the city’s voting age population have also occurred, with an estimated 36 percent of the voting age population identifying as Latino. However, Latino representation on the city ccouncil was limited to two members who were appointed and no Latino had won a contested election in the city.
Since the city was reorganized to a council-city manager governing system in the 1960s, members of the council have been elected “at large” in citywide votes after winning primaries in which some seats were selected by district and others at-large. This complicated system made it difficult for minority candidates to win in competitive elections. For instance, in the 2015 elections, none of five Latino candidates won council seats.
Project Summary :
State law prevented the city from moving to a district-only electoral system for both primaries and general elections. Attempts by city officials to get the state legislature to change the law, however, failed to produce results. In March 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington notified the city that it believed the election system violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Instead of fighting the ACLU in court, the city negotiated with the organization after a complaint was filed in federal court. Ultimately, the judge accepted a consent decree in which six council seats would be elected by district and one at-large.
Engagement Strategies :
The council stressed the need for a thorough public outreach effort during the process leading up to the initial Consent Decree. The development of the city’s proposed implementation plan and completion of the implementation process was to be finished as far in advance of the 2017 election cycle as possible. To this end, the council held several public meetings where the election system was discussed and the community could comment. The city also did targeted advertising in local Spanish language media to inform the public and to elicit comments and questions.
The 2017 election resulted in five new city council candidates winning seats and increasing the Latino representation on the council to three.
Pasco’s willingness to embrace change has been recognized throughout the state as a model to better represent local communities.
For instance, Blanche Barajas was the first Latina elected in a contested council race and was one of the five new members. Council member Barajas said, “This time, thanks to redistricting, many Latinos and Latinas felt empowered, felt they now had a voice and felt they were equal. Residents see and accept the vibrant multi-culture economy thriving in Pasco and now feel equal voice and representation and are no longer afraid to voice their concerns. The voting turnout was higher as well; historically the precincts in now District 1 had a 3% voter turnout, this election resulted in a 17% turn out. Why? Because now people can relate, now people feel supported and heard. People of Pasco have connected to local government and have showed support for their choice. The new redistricting laws have allowed people to embrace diversity and opportunity and have elected their first Latina in decades.”
Saul Martinez was the first male Latino appointed to the city council. Beginning his service in 2010, election law required him to run for election in 2011, and for re-election in 2013. Both times he was unopposed. “I was determined to be a positive role model for a growing Latino population in our city but was reluctant to support district-only voting, at first, because I was of the mind that everyone that was impacted by a decision of a council cember should be able to have the opportunity to vote for that council member. On the other hand, I have always believed that a council should look like and represent its ethnic communities in order to have a better understanding of the needs of the entire community.” Martinez continued: “So I supported the change of our voting system to better serve our city. There was some resistance from some residents, but through communication and education of the process, that resistance diminished.” He continued, “Results of the change have proven to be positive. With our new council, new ideas that better represent the needs of our community have been introduced and I feel that the atmosphere regarding race is improved.” He concluded, “This change provides for more opportunity to those potential candidates who would otherwise not be able to afford the significant cost of a city-wide campaign while promoting opportunities to improve interactions at the district and neighborhood level. We are optimistic about the changes and looking to continue to help improve quality of life for our residents and helping the city to remain vibrant.”
Leo Perales of the Tri-Cities Latino Coalition was quoted in a Tri-City Herald story that “No longer will a Latino/Latina candidate have a fleeting feeling of hope when they declare their candidacy but a feeling of equality…A true representative and responsive government demands diversity, and a severe lack of diversity is unhealthy for any democracy.”
The Seattle Times Editorial Board, in a recent editorial urging the Washington State Legislature to pass a state Voting Rights Act said, “The consequences of the status quo are proven and real. For years, the requirement that all council positions be elected citywide in general elections put Latino candidates at a disadvantage in city council races in Yakima and Pasco, even though Latino residents made up about one-third of the voting-age citizens in each city…While Yakima fought the ACLU lawsuit — racking up legal fees of $3 million — Pasco welcomed the legal challenge, seeing it as a much-needed opportunity to change its election system.”