By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. December 3, 2018
Santa Monica is facing a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit that seeks to strip the city of its at-large city council elections and compel it to employ elections from single-seat, winner-take all districts.
This result would be bad for Santa Monica. Why?
Currently all Santa Monica registered voters have a right to vote for all elected positions governing the city. The City’s at-large electoral system features elections every two years, with three, four-year City Council seats up in one election, and four, four-year seats in the next. Voters can vote for all seats up in each election.
This system gives all Santa Monica registered voters the ability to vote for all City Council seats, while candidates must display an understanding of the entire city and be responsive across geographical lines to be elected. This is especially critical in a small place like Santa Monica, where what happens in one part of the city can easily affect another, and our daily lives bring us to many parts.
Furthermore, having staggered elections allows for voters voice every two years to adapt to changing circumstances, while retaining four year terms that allow Councilmembers to serve without having to immediately turn around and start fundraising for a new election. Staggered terms also provide for a potential mix of new blood and institutional memory every two years through a mix of incumbents and first-time members on each City Council.
But the benefits of at-large elections do not stop on election day. The City Council makes decisions on a plethora of matters, large and small – and not all issues are geographically-based, far from it. In this sense, the parochial appeal of having ‘your own’ council member is seductive but misplaced.
As a resident, you may find that you agree with a given Councilmember on some issues, but not on others – including someone who may won a majority of the vote in your own neighborhood. Under our current system, you can go to any of seven Councilmembers on a issue important to you, because they need votes from all parts of the city to be elected, finding one closest to your views. For example, you may find resonance with one Councilmember on the arts, another on social services and another on development.
Under single-seat, winner-take-all district elections, that all goes away. First, Santa Monica residents would lose their direct voice on six of seven council seats, being able to vote for only one seat out of seven. Second, council members would no longer need votes from any Santa Monicans outside of their district to be elected, decreasing citywide accountability of our elected officials, while increasing the relative access of those ‘outside the district’ Santa Monicans who can make large campaign donations to candidates living in other parts of the city.
Some Latinos More Equal Than Others
The basic premise of the CVRA lawsuit is that Latino-preferred candidates are not being elected in a legally sufficient number — and that is because Latino voters’ preferences are being diluted beyond a legally acceptable threshold by the City’s at-large voting system. The court briefs filed by both sides are mostly dedicated to proving/disproving this premise.
I find the City’s brief’s compelling on this point, demonstrating that the overwhelming majority of Latino-preferred candidates over the years have been elected to the City Council (as well as the School Board, College Board and Rent Control Board).
But for Santa Monicans trying to figure what this is all about, perhaps what is most revealing is the remedy the plaintiffs are seeking.
Under the CVRA, there are many possible legal remedies, including variants of Santa Monica’s at-large system. The plaintiffs appear to want no part of that. Specifically, they seem to want one thing – a Pico Neighborhood single-seat, winner-take-all district, which not coincidentally is where the plaintiffs live.
Yet a majority of Latinos in Santa Monica live outside of the Pico Neighborhood. Do they not count too? Apparently not in this CVRA case. The plaintiffs rightly should be proud of their social justice advocacy in the city. But that doesn’t entitle them to their own City Council district upon that basis, at the expense of city-wide democracy, and without regard for Santa Monica Latinos who don’t live in their neighborhood.
At-Large, Ranked-Choice Voting Elections preferable for Santa Monica
A remedy contained in the CVRA — but apparently not sought by the plaintiffs — is ranked-choice voting, the use of which is spreading across the nation. A form of elections by proportional representation, ranked-choice voting — combined with Santa Monica’s at-large system — would retain the benefits of Santa Monica’s current system, but lead to results more directly proportional to the diversity in our electorate, giving more residents a seat at the table of our democracy.
But as far as what is good for Santa Monica, single-seat, winner-take-all districts would be a regressive step backwards for our community and our local democracy. By contrast, ranked-choice voting would preserve and enhance the benefits of our current system, and offer those to all Santa Monica Latinos. Lamentably that hasn’t appeared to be on the plaintiff’s radar.
Perhaps it should be.
Multi-part series on Santa Monica and the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA)
Santa Monica case reveals flawed California Voting Rights Act, Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Supporting Santa Monica’s voting rights ruling appeal, February 25, 2019
Appeal for Reason, December 3, 2018
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) and was a 2018 candidate for California Secretary of State. He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein
‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.