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The fourth week of the California Voting Rights Act trial challenging Santa Monica’s election system continued to be a battle of experts, with detailed questioning regarding regression formulas, statistics and margins of error, dragging the contentious bench trial into late August and likely well into September. A similar trial in Palmdale lasted only 8 days.

The City’s key witness, a political science professor of advanced quantitative methods at UCLA, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, was back on the stand Tuesday. Attorneys for the city painstakingly reviewed his analysis of dozens of elections for City Council, local boards and propositions over the past two decades.

Dr. Lewis testified that since 2002, 71 percent of Latino-preferred candidates have won Council seats, and 82 percent of Latino-preferred candidates have won seats on other boards. Dr. Lewis criticized opposing expert analysis that found racially polarized voting, saying there are too few Latinos in any given precinct to draw that inference. Santa Monica is just over 13 percent Latino.

“There’s substantial uncertainty,” Dr. Lewis said. Because voters do not disclose their identity and can vote for up to three or four candidates, the experts disagree on the accuracy of formulas and graphs that analyze precinct behavior.

The Pico Neighborhood Association sued the City of Santa Monica in 2015, arguing its at-large election system makes it too difficult for Latino candidates to get onto the dais. Their attorneys argue Judge Yvette Palazuelos should only weigh Council elections when considering the case. One of the plaintiffs, Oscar de la Torre, has won several Santa Monica Malibu School Board elections and is currently running again. Sitting Councilmember Tony Vazquez and Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis both have Latino heritage.

De la Torre, a fervent critic of city officials, has been waiting to take the stand for weeks. In their trial brief, the City accused him of purposefully throwing his 2016 campaign for City Council to win the lawsuit. De la Torre claims the city has systematically discriminated against the Pico Neighborhood. His lawyers propose switching to a district-based voting system, where the Pico Neighborhood would be approximately 30 percent Latino.

The expert on his side, Cal-Tech professor Dr. Morgan Kousser, testified that voters split along racial lines in several elections, including the 1994 City Council race when Councilmember Tony Vazquez lost his seat. 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 reforms.

It’s unclear how the trial will impact the November election, should Judge Palazuelos rule Santa Monica’s election system is illegal. The City Clerk says it would be impossible to make last minute changes since Santa Monica’s elections are consolidated with Los Angeles. In the Palmdale case, the judge refused to certify election results after finding its system discriminated against minorities.

kate@smdp.com

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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