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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)

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. We can speculate about the future until the cows come home to Sunset Park. Rather, let’s observe the present city council elected by at large elections.
    When a large group of residents attend council meetings, as happened last week to ask the appeal be dropped, the response from the at large city council was nothing, nada. No comment was made other than a prepared response read by Mayor Winterer. Yes, there was a hand wave by Tony Vazquez which was probably a symbol of support, or less likely a wave symbolozing, “bye, I’m out of here.”
    The at large city council has proved time and again to be more responsive to business interests than residents concerns. Sure, they listen to us. In the end, actions speak louder than words.
    Change is needed. Rather than delivering more of the same, why not try something new.? Heck, even the law is on the side of this change.
    Stop wasting money on a appeal that only one resident, beside those sitting high on the Dias, showed up at city hall to support. Stop the appeal.

  2. Give it up Michael… NO WAY will your City Council cohorts prevail in this extravagantly expensive, futile exercise. No city has. Meanwhile, you waste millions of taxpayer dollars trying to preserve power in current hands. Times change. Ranked voting is a good thing. So is representation by district, which is more representative, giving voice to the interests of geographic (and other) minorities.

  3. There might be some logic to this argument IF the members of the city council were actually responsive to their constituents. Since they’ve proven, time after time, that they care not one whit about what we think and are utterly beholden to their developer patrons, the current system must be abolished. Having more local representation, and requiring the representatives to actually live in their district, will require them to be beholden to the people who actually elected them, not the people who line their pockets. It will also reduce the need for huge campaign war chests, in turn making them less beholden to special interest donors. Campaigning to a smaller neighborhood/population will be much less expensive and will allow the candidates to engage in old fashioned, door-to-door campaigns. They will be forced to get to know their constituents and understand what their issues are. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that the three current council members from the posh Montana area have any idea what the needs of folks in the Pico district are. Furthermore, it is beyond the pale that these seven council members, having lost a fair legal process should now waste more of OUR tax money on a doomed appeal using the same argument that’s already failed once in Santa Monica, and in every single CVRA trail in the state. These seven people are simply trying to hang onto their own power for as long as possible, as they continue to line their pockets at the city’s expense. The very fact that they intend to name a new council member themselves, to replace outgoing Tony Vasquez, instead of holding a special election, merely highlights their arrogance and lack of interest in the residents’ opinions, as does their recent reaction to resident protests of their appeal. The court must order special elections early next year and not wait for years while these seven people continue to waste our money making appeal after fruitless appeal. The people have spoken and the courts have spoken. So let it be written, so let it be done.

  4. Nicely done, Michael. I had been wondering whether ranked-choice voting was an option here. And I agree that it would allow many more Latinos around the city to gain increased participation, rather than confining such benefits to one guy and perhaps the one neighborhood where he lives Considering such a solution would extend any potential benefits around the city, while maintaining our unity of government rather than the highly destructive Nimby-ism we see around us. As to the comment that “no city has ever won an appeal,” it should be noted that many cities around us have simply settled to avoid the cost of litigation, and/or because their demographics made district elections feasible. The LA Times did a study on this law and its outcomes, which is worthwhile reading for anyone who has just seen the headlines. I’m a very strong proponent of voting rights; I’m just not sure the plaintiff’s solution gets us there. Yours might. It will be interesting to see what response “appeals for reason” get. That’s often a revealing way of learning about anyone involved in a lawsuit. I’m interested in seeing any comments about any disadvantages to ranked choice voting. Anyway, here’s the Times study for anyone interested.

  5. I would like to know the source that determined more “Latinos” live outside the Pico Neighborhood than it. The fact that “No city has ever won an appeal” has more to with the fact that it makes a solid case of violating the CVRA. I appreciate Mike’s perspective but I wonder how many others against this lawsuit and for the appeal have an established record of solidarity in the social justice and equity battles we’ve faced in Santa Monica. I ask because why disturb a long time coming victory while it is in the midst of being handed to people who for decades have fought tooth and nail and risked their life for social justice and equity in Santa Monica? Another poster on a forum also mentioned the cost of running for an at-large office vs the cost of running for a district seat. Considering Santa Monica’s history, and while perhaps not perfect, district elections are the way to go.

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