Voters cast their ballots at City Hall during an election. (File photo)

Councilmember Tony Vazquez’s tenure on the City Council became the focus of the fifth day of testimony in the voting rights trial challenging Santa Monica’s election system. The Pico Neighborhood Association brought the case in 2015 alleging it’s too hard for Latino voters to get their preferred candidates into power.

Armed with a blue Sharpie and a giant legal pad, a Cal-Tech professor and expert on racially-polarized voting drew charts for Judge Yvette Palazuelos to demonstrate his formula to determine whether Latinos vote differently than the white majority here. Dr. J. Morgan Kousser has served as an expert witness in dozens of federal and state voting rights cases, including litigation in Santa Clara and Palmdale that resulted in major election reforms.

In Santa Monica, Kousser looked at recent elections with Latino candidates, comparing the percentage of voters with Latino surnames in each precinct with the top vote-getters. Analysis of Santa Monica elections is complicated by the fact a single voter can choose up to three or four candidates, depending on the number of open seats. As a result, Kousser acknowledged there’s a relatively high margin of error.

His weighted regression formula placed Latino support for Vazquez at 145 percent in 1994, with a 28 percent margin of error. Meanwhile, only about 35 percent of whites voted for Vazquez, with a two percent margin of error. Kousser said the margin of error is lower for white voters because they dominate the majority of precincts.

“If you look at Tony Vazquez … it’s over 100 percent,” Kousser testified looking at a chart showing election results. “The way you should interpret this is almost every Latino cast one of their three ballots for Mr. Vazquez.”

Vazquez lost overall, despite the historic power of incumbency in Santa Monica elections. To Kousser, it’s one of several examples where voters split along racial lines, along with the 2004 and 2016 failed City Council campaigns by activist Maria Loya or her husband, Oscar de la Torre, among others.

It is not clear whether Vazquez will take the stand during the trial. Attorney Kevin Shenkman plans to depose him again this week but had difficulty scheduling a time because the Councilmember has hired a new attorney, separate from the ones provided by the City. A previous deposition revealed Vazquez’s wife, School Board member Maria Leon Vazquez, approved contracts that benefited his consulting clients. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office is still investigating a potential conflict of interest.

Attorneys for the City said Kousser is wrong to only look at candidates with Latino surnames in his analysis. For example, Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis self-identifies as Latina, though she does not have a Spanish surname. They say Latinos also support white candidates who win in the at-large election system.

“The CVRA repeatedly makes plain that the touchstone of the racial-polarization analysis is not the race or ethnicity of the candidate, but instead the preference of the voters,” said a recent brief from attorneys at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, submitted to Judge Palazuelos.

Latinos make up roughly 13 percent of Santa Monica’s electorate. At trial, Palazuelos looked at a hypothetical Pico Neighborhood District that would be roughly 30 percent Latino. In a district-based system, voters could support one candidate from their neighborhood. Currently, all voters choose from a slate of candidates and have a say in each open seat.

“Santa Monica voters have adopted an at-large election system and twice rejected a proposed move to districts,” said Chief Communications Officer Debbie Lee in an email to the Daily Press. “Plaintiffs bear a heavy burden to overturn the will of the voters; the City believes the facts will demonstrate that they cannot meet that burden here.”

Both sides agree the case will likely come down to expert testimony. Attorneys for the City will cross-examine Kousser Wednesday.

Activist Oscar de la Torre will likely take the stand this week to testify on his experience running for City Council. The City says the Santa Monica-Malibu School Board purposefully lost his 2016 bid for the Council to win this lawsuit.

It is not known how the trial will impact the November ballot, should Judge Palazuelos find racially polarized voting in Santa Monica. More than a dozen potential candidates have already pulled papers to begin the process of running for a seat. Two candidates, Residocracy leaders Armen Melkonians and Kate Bransfield, dropped out of the race earlier this week citing uncertainty caused by the litigation.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press