Expert endorses new Franklin voter map. But one big change is needed for legal elections

·5 min read

A national expert in voting rights lawsuits sided with the Franklin County commissioners’ pick of maps for their new voting districts.

Peter Morrison, the demographer hired by the county, supported their pick for a map, but said they will need to change how commissioners are chosen to comply with Washington state and federal laws.

Morrison is an Massachusetts-based expert hired by governments nationwide to help with voting rights lawsuits. He is consulting with Franklin County on the lawsuit brought by three local members of the League of United Latin American Citizens with the help of the UCLA Voting Rights Project

His presentation last week came as the commissioners settled on a new map that closely resembles the current map —a suggestion that wasn’t supported by the members of their own hand-picked redistricting committee formed to redraw the maps.

Morrison said the other map options, including one that mirrors a proposal to create an east Pasco district, are flawed because they either pack Latinos into a single district or spread them out across all three districts.

The commissioners looked during Tuesday’s meeting at two variations of the same map that were both supported by Morrison. And he expected that sometime this year, the eastern voting district on the map would have a majority Latino voting population.

Here’s what Franklin’s new voting districts may look like. Is it enough to stop the lawsuit?

“As long as you’re holding an election in 2022, any reasonable person looking at these numbers who understands what they measure would say that Latinos either have unquestioned control or almost certain control depending on which map you’re talking about,” he said. “I would challenge plaintiffs to come up with a plan that they would find preferable to either of these options.”

While Morrison gave his blessing to the commission’s pick, he didn’t support staying with their current election process.

Currently, the primaries are only held within each of the three voting districts, but the general election allows all voters in every district to vote countywide.

Based on the numbers, Morrison said an at-large election would look like they are diluting the Latino influence in the election.

“Comparing District 2 to the county total creates, in my judgment, a red flag that would immediately create a circumstance in which a plaintiff would look at this and say, ‘You’re holding an election in a fashion that dilutes Latinos votes.’ .... That’s the insurmountable problem that would happen if any of these plans were used in any fashion other than district-only elections.”

Franklin County leaders voted to move forward with this proposed redistricting map.
Franklin County leaders voted to move forward with this proposed redistricting map.

The commissioners did not make any decision about at-large or district-based voting.

While the commissioners unanimously settled on a map, the outcome of the voting rights lawsuit could change the map again.

Public comment

Their map choice was met by general support by those attending the meeting, including members of the redistricting committee.

“Now the decision time is yours to decide which one you want to present and vote on and go forward,” said George Dockstader. “We have the information to back us up in court.”

Dockstader continued to support staying with at-large voting in the general election. His opinion was that it would mean the commissioners wouldn’t work for the good of the entire county, but would focus on their districts.

Another committee member, Lupe Cardenas, also supported using the option 2 map, a change from a previous commission meeting. He wasn’t sure if the committee would come up with better answers.

Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco, WA.
Franklin County Courthouse in Pasco, WA.

On the other hand, Franklin County Democrat Party Chair Jeffrey Robinson was skeptical that it would pass muster with the judge in the voting rights lawsuit.

“As Felix Vargas told you as he was commenting, ‘You’re heading for a train wreck.’ I’m so sorry that this is the group of the commissioners what is about to experience the sinking of the Titanic.”

Commissioner Clint Didier thanked Morrison for his time, and said the information he provided helped to clarify the situation.

“As a commissioner of this board, I thank the committee for the work that they’ve done. They’ve provided six maps. Of that one map was chosen by the demographer, and he offered one deviation. If there was any remote chance of any of those other maps making it, he would have given us those options,” Didier said. “I think our committee has done as much as they can do, and I think the ultimate decision is up to us.”

Commissioner Rocky Mullen said, “I wish to thank them (the redistricting committee) for their time. Time is something that you can take, but you can never give it back. I think that we need to move forward.”

Special meeting clash

Before Tuesday’s commission meeting, a special closed-door executive session had been planned but was canceled after Didier clashed with County Prosecutor Shawn Sant.

Sant and County Administrator Keith Johnson asked for the special meeting so the commissioners could talk with their attorney about the voting rights litigation and Morrison.

“It just made sense to have a meeting prior to the 9 o’clock time, so it doesn’t take up the public’s time,” Sant said. “I think it’s always important to have that information available to the board rather than for the first time having it discussed during the meeting.”

Didier said he didn’t see any reason to have an executive session to discuss the items in the demographer’s information.

“I am not for this special meeting because I didn’t call it. If Commissioner Mullen and you (Commissioner Brad Peck) want to override me, go ahead,” Didier said in response to a suggestion from Peck to go ahead with the briefing.

Mullen said he understood the thoughts of having the meeting, but he didn’t like that it was called without consulting the commissioners.

He said that calling a meeting before the existing meeting leads him to the suspicion that someone wants them to change what they are thinking.

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