By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 25, 2019
On February 15, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos finalized her tentative ruling against the City of Santa Monica in a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit entitled ‘Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica’, ordering a July 2nd, 2019 special election for all seven city council seats, based upon new single-seat, winner-take-all districts proposed by the plaintiffs.
On February 21, the City Council voted unanimously to appeal. There are many good reasons for this.
A July 2nd special election conflicts with the City’s budget process
Seemingly oblivious to how Santa Monica government functions, Judge’s Palazuelo’s July 2 election date would conflict with the City’s Biennial budget process, by scheduling a simultaneous special election campaign. There is nothing in the Judge’s Statement of Decision stating how it is the public’s interest to hold an election at exactly the time the community is supposed to be focusing on its budget, with includes study sessions on April 23 and June 4-5, and budget adoption on June 25.
Unless the intent is to handicap the incumbents, do we really want sitting Councilmembers running for re-election to have to choose between campaigning and carefully focusing upon the budget? Do we want community members conflicted between door-knocking and phone-banking for their favored candidate, and educating themselves upon the budget and lobbying their elected representatives on priorities?
How did Judge Palazuelo come up with this date? She observed that it is generally four months from the beginning of the nomination period until a regular City Council election, and that her final judgement should be entered no later than March 1. Therefore without consideration of any other factors – presto chango – let’s count out four months and have an election!
July 2nd date undermines grassroots community process and favors big money in politics
This tone deafness on democracy extends to how the Judge assumes an election process begins with the opening of the nomination period. Far from it! In any healthy democracy, many candidacies are generated from grassroots community-based discussions – organic processes that take time. Moving directly to candidate self-nominations would skip over this important step – not a good idea unless your ruling is primarily meant to empower a plaintiff already prepared to run in a newly drawn district, and forget the impact upon the rest of us.
Such organic bottom-up processes are always important in local elections, but would be especially so under a new electoral system — including how to confront the inevitable vote splitting and ‘spoiler effect’ from having ‘too many’ candidates, that single-seat, winner-take-all districts (without ranked-choice voting) would bring.
A rush to elections would also challenge Santa Monica’s educational infrastructure around local campaigns. Santa Monica devotes a great deal of time and energy to election-related programming on City TV, and holds candidates forums in conjunction with community organizations like the League of Women Voters — all meant to mitigate against the role of big money in politics, by providing a baseline of information about all candidates to voters.
In a normal Santa Monica city council election, there are a dozen or so candidates to plan and program for. But there were recently 76 people who applied for the single city council vacancy created by Tony Vasquez’s January 5 resignation. What happens when people think there are seven wide-open seats and 50 to 150 candidates apply? How ready is the community to handle multiple candidate forums, programming and coverage for that number of candidates? Might we not benefit with more time to plan and prepare?
Or maybe the Court doesn’t care about an informed electorate and the role of money in politics, because rushing into an election campaign would also give a significant advantage to those who already have immediate access to campaign financing, compared to grassroots campaigns that need more time to develop.
Furthermore, a July 2nd stand-alone election — with voters not turning out for any other reason — would further favor well-financed candidates that can target likely voters through extensive direct mail campaigns, especially voters choosing to vote early by mail.
Consolidated elections better for democracy
Back in 1984, Santa Monica voted to move from April stand-alone elections in odd-numbered years, to November consolidated elections (with state and national office) in even-numbered years. Turnout rose immediately, doubling (and in some elections almost tripling) what it had been before.
What Santa Monica did voluntarily, the State of California mandated in 2015 via AB 415 — the California Voter Participation Rights Act (CVPRA) — requires municipalities with low voter turnout to hold elections at the same time as state and national elections. This would suggest that a court-mandated Santa Monica special election be held in conjunction with the March 2020 California primary or the November 2020 California general election.
According to Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Dean Logan, over 160 Los Angeles County cities and other agencies have had to consolidate their elections as a result of the CVPRA. Yet somehow Judge Palazuelo thinks in contradiction to this state law that a low-turnout special election is acceptable for Santa Monica when other options are available?
Who draws the lines?
Judge Palazuelo’s ruling also bumps up against California Elections Code Section 10010, which states that an open and transparent public process is required before any new geographical electoral districts are adopted. Apparently the Judge believes that ‘more’ democracy in one place justifies less of it in another, because her decision would bypass this mandated public process and simply adopt district lines submitted by a politically self-interested party — the plaintiffs — lines which would then be locked in for ten years until the next census.
Appeal upon the merits
Judge Palazuelo’s ruling is tone deaf on many core aspects of democracy, all seemingly sublimated to her desire to immediately move to July 2nd elections, which she says is the only way that “the stain of the unlawful discriminatory at-large election system be promptly erased.”
So we are in the business of ‘erasing’ our past? Really? There isn’t anything about that in the CVRA legislation that provides the basis for this claim. Yet somehow holding a special election on a low-turnout date two days before a national holiday when everyone is away on vacation is the only date to do it?
If this black and white ideological manner is how the judge sees things — and it leads to so many unnecessary anti-democratic by-products — perhaps the judge also didn’t get the merits of the case right, which the City argues is far more nuanced than appears perceived by the court.
There is actually good reason to believe the City will win upon the merits upon appeal. That’s what I will explore in Part II.
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). 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.