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Santa Monica activist Oscar de la Torre is highlighting his own election loss last November in a legal effort to dismantle the way the City has held elections for seventy years.

De la Torre is the board co-chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association, which has sued Santa Monica over the City’s use of at-large elections. De la Torre’s wife is also a plaintiff in the suit. The suit claims that citywide elections violate the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits at-large elections if they can be shown to racially polarize voting.

To de la Torre, that’s exactly what happened three months ago, when he lost his bid for a seat on the City Council. In the four precincts that lie entirely within the Pico Neighborhood, where many Latinos live, de la Torre received 1317 votes, slightly edging out Councilmember Terry O’Day, a white candidate who also lives in the Pico Neighborhood who received 1238 votes, according to new documents filed in court.

O’Day received far more support city wide – winning him a seat on the Council along with Ted Winterer and Gleam Davis. De la Torre now says he never had a shot at winning.

“The current at-large elections system makes it too expensive to have a viable shot at winning when you’re running up against incumbents that are also protected from not having term limits,” de la Torre said.

“Racially polarized voting is when there is a substantial difference between which candidate a minority voting bloc prefers and who the rest of the electorate prefers,” said attorney Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman and Hughes PC who is representing the Pico Neighborhood Association in the lawsuit.

The case is slated to head to trial in October.  Shenkman says expert analysis shows that precincts with majority Latino populations overwhelmingly voted for de la Torre in 2016, while white voters cast ballots for other candidates. It is one of four examples Shenkman says proves Santa Monica must change its election laws.

Attorneys for the City of Santa Monica have repeatedly sought to have the case dismissed, arguing the current system keeps elections focused on citywide issues and gives voters influence over all seven councilmembers. There are two Latinos currently serving on the City Council: Antonio Vazquez and Gleam Davis. There are also several Latino elected-officials serving on the Rent Control Board, Santa Monica College’s governing body and the Santa Monica-Malibu School Board, including de la Torre himself.

To Shenkman, Santa Monica’s election system is a relic of its segregated past and served to suppress minority votes. Critics of at-large elections argue minority candidates have more difficulty raising the amount of money it costs to run citywide campaigns. Davis and Vazquez are the only two Latinos voted to the City Council in 70 years.

Santa Monica is only the latest of about a dozen California cities to face a legal challenge from Shenkman over the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

“It’s very rare that these go to trial; there’s only been the one,” Shenkman said, citing the case he won against Palmdale in 2013. “In that case, the city spent $7 million and in the end, their election system was changed to district elections and all their incumbent council members was put in the same district.”

Just last week, the city of Santa Maria took action to change to district-based elections to avoid a costly lawsuit over the CVRA. The City Attorney there, Gil Trujillo, cautioned the city council he “was not aware of any city that has successfully defended against a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit,” according to reports in the Lompoc Record. Cities across California have taken similar steps in the face of lawsuits: Compton, Escondido, Whittier, Modesto and Anaheim all buckled under pressure and changed their election systems.

Santa Monica put at-large elections under a microscope in 1990, when the City established a 15-member Charter Review Commission to review election policies. An article in the Santa Monica Outlook regarding the City’s charter in 1946 noted the “interest of minorities is always best protected by a system which favors the election of liberal-minded persons who are not compelled to play peanut politics.”

The Commission recommended the City change from at-large elections to districts or proportional voting in order to meet minority interests.  But when the motion came up for a vote in 1992, the City Council struck down the idea with a four-three. Councilmember Vazquez, who was on the council at the time, was among those who voted for changing to district elections.

The issue has also gone to voters themselves. In 1975 and 2002 voters considered and rejected district elections in voter initiatives.