A state election law is preventing small cities like Pasco from updating their election systems to make choosing minority candidates a possibility.

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MORE than half of the residents of the small Central Washington city of Pasco are Latino, but only one member of its City Council comes from that ethnic group.

Saul Martinez was appointed to the council, not elected. Other qualified Latino candidates have run but failed to win a citywide election. This is a problem — one Pasco city officials acknowledge and want to fix — but an outdated state law is preventing Pasco from making its election system more hospitable to minority candidates.

Despite Pasco’s lobbying for change, the Legislature so far has been unmoved.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington now might have the solution. Similar to its efforts in Yakima, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Pasco last week accusing the city of diluting the Latino voice in elections and violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins, while not thrilled about being a defendant in a lawsuit, says the ACLU case may be the answer to the city’s problem.

Watkins and other city officials have acknowledged for years that Pasco needs a more diverse council that better represents its residents.

Long term, the state of Washington needs its own voting-rights act to fix this and other problems with the state’s voting laws.”

Since 1994, all but 10 of Washington’s cities have been prohibited from substantially changing the way they count votes in their local elections. The problem in Pasco and so many other small cities is that although people in local districts choose their candidates in primary elections, the final choices are made in the general election by voters in the entire city. So even though Pasco has carefully drawn its election boundaries to make two of its five districts Latino majority, that distinction doesn’t help in the general election.

Long term, the state of Washington needs its own voting-rights act to fix this and other problems with the state’s voting laws. The ACLU and The Seattle Times editorial board have been pushing for a Washington Voting Rights Act for years.

In the next few months, the ACLU and Pasco will present plans to the court to change the city’s elections to be more district focused. The ACLU wants to change Pasco’s City Council election system to seven single-member districts, similar to a new Yakima system that came about because of an ACLU lawsuit against that city. The city is looking for a hybrid of district and at-large seats.

After the ACLU won its lawsuit against the city of Yakima, a new election system resulted in the 2014 election of the city’s first three Latina members to the seven-member council.

Other cities have this problem. Lawsuits are not the way to fix this issue statewide. The Legislature needs to act.