Franklin County agrees to voting rights lawsuit settlement

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A Franklin County resident places a ballot in the drop box at the corner of North Third Avenue and West Clark Street in Pasco.

Tri-City Herald

Latino voters will have a fairer chance to choose a candidate of their choice starting in 2024 as part of a legal settlement reached with Franklin County this week.

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

“I’m really excited about the future,” said Gabriel Portugal, a Pasco resident and state league manager. “It will open up opportunities for Latino candidates to be successful, and that’s what we hope.”

The sentiment was echoed by Franklin County District Attorney Shawn Sant, who called the decision a win-win for the Latino community and the county. The change ensures that all citizens have a voice in the electoral process, he said.

“I think it’s a fair and equitable outcome given the changing demographics we’ve had over the years,” he said.

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

The legal battle took twists and turns, including an earlier settlement submitted by county prosecutors that two commissioners claimed were surprised. It was later retracted.

The new agreement retains recently approved maps that keep most of East Pasco, which is heavily Latino, inside a single district rather than being split among the three districts, attorneys for the UCLA Voting Rights Project.

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

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

So the next time this seat will be up for election will be in 2024.

District vote change

In addition to cementing the map, the settlement changes general election voting to district-based voting beginning in 2024.

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

The top two candidates are then elected in 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, US Census Bureau data shows nearly 54% are Hispanic. And Latinos make up more than a third of potential voters.

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

Dispute of attorney’s fees

Additionally, as part of the settlement, the county agreed to pay $375,000 in attorneys’ fees to the UCLA Voting Rights Project in three installments.

While both sides in the lawsuit said it was a good outcome, some disagreed with the terms.

James Gimenez, a Franklin County resident who asked to join the lawsuit after the first settlement attempt, raised a question about the amount of money the parties agreed to.

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

Ard sought to cut the $375,000 payment by a third, saying it was much higher than the annual income of most Franklin County residents. He also argued that this was not a big change in the way commissioner elections are currently conducted.

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

Ekstrom disagreed with Ard, saying the $375,000 attorney’s fee was reasonable.

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

He said commissioners could keep roughly the same card and still pay just $375,000.

“The irony is this: if the UCLA project had chosen to go to court, it would most likely have won on the merits,” he said in a written statement to the Herald.

“Granted, the UCLA Project will seek to portray the settlement as a victory for it, seeking to take credit for district-level elections beginning in 2024. But, there’s no credit to be had until the card remains essentially the same.”

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.

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