The City of Santa Monica has won its appeal in the voting rights case that could have upended local elections.
Under the ruling issued Thursday, Santa Monica’s at-large election system was affirmed and the city will not be forced to move to a district based system.
The city was sued by the Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya alleging that the city’s at-large system discriminated against Latino residents. The plaintiffs filed a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city and initially won the case. However the city appealed and a three judge panel ruled in the City’s favor this week.
The CVRA has five requirements that must be proven: protected class, resident, at-large voting, racially polarized voting and dilution. The City didn’t contest the first three requirements that the plaintiffs are members of a racial minority, living in the city that uses an at-large voting system.
However it did contest the last two.
Racially polarized voting is a pattern in which the preferences of a protected class differ from those of the rest of the city in a legally significant way. Dilution requires the plaintiff to prove that the ability of the protected class to elect candidates or influence the outcome of an election is impaired due to the dilution or abridgment of the voters’ rights.
In its ruling, the court said dilution was the key to the case and that as the legislature had not provided a definition of the term, the judges would create one for themselves. In considering the plain language definition, they said both districts and at-large systems could weaken a group’s voting power.
“Pouring a quart of water into a quart of milk, for instance, dilutes the milk to half strength. Diluting the milk weakens its nutritional value,” said the court. “This familiar concept applies to electoral results.”
They said district systems that spread a group’s supporters throughout a city (known as cracking) would prevent them from winning any seats while clustering an entire group into a few seats (packing) could weaken their overall power.
They said an at-large system would be unfair to a group that is a minority throughout the city but a majority inside a proposed district as they would be able to select a candidate in a defined area but are outvoted city-wide.
However, the court said the possibility of dilution isn’t always cause for changing the system.
“Generally, democracy is majority rule,” said the decision. “Under ideal conditions in a democracy, the majority of voters tends to win and the minority of voters tends to lose. When candidates or causes lose elections simply because too few voters support them, that is not democracy failing. That is democracy working. The dilution element thus must do the work of distinguishing between the general case, when majority rule is proper, and the special case, when some mechanism has improperly diluted minority voting power.”
The court said that as the proposed district map would create a Pico neighborhood with only 30 percent Latino residents, Latino voters would not be able to win an election outright. The judges said while districts would increase Latino voters from 14 percent city wide to 30 percent inside the Pico district, a dilution argument requires the increase in voter power would impact the electoral results.
“Pico thus failed to show the at-large system was the reason Latinos allegedly have had trouble getting elected to the City Council,” said the decision. “The reason for the asserted lack of electoral success in Santa Monica would appear to be that there are too few Latinos to muster a majority, no matter how the City might slice itself into districts or wards. At-large voting is not to blame. Small numbers are.”
The judges also rejected a claim that the City charter violated equal protection laws because it created an at-large system that disenfranchised minority voters. The court said to prevail on its equal protection violation claim, Pico had to prove the City adopted or maintained its at-large system with the purpose of discriminating against minorities. The judges said the intent of the charter was not to discriminate and therefore the argument was not valid.
“We are very pleased with the Court of Appeal’s decision. The opinion correctly finds that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has not diluted Latino voting power and so complies with the California Voting Rights Act,” said Ted Boutrous, outside counsel representing the City in the case. “The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ false narrative that the City had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in enacting and maintaining its current election system—which is exactly the opposite of what the record showed at trial.”
The plaintiffs have 10 days to request a review of the case by the California Supreme Court. While neither Loya or her attorney discussed their future plans, they both criticized the appeal ruling.
“The appellate decision is disappointing, particularly because of the damage that decision will inflict upon the voting rights of millions of minorities in California, if that decision stands,” said attorney Kevin Shenkman. “The decision is wrong in some very obvious ways. It is our responsibility to make things right, not just as attorneys, but also as Californians.”
Loya said the ruling had far reaching consequences.
“After a six week trial the Superior Court ruled in our favor, demanding district-based elections as a remedy to systemic racism in Santa Monica’s elections,” she said. “The appellate courts ruling is wrong and threatens voting rights for people of color throughout the State of California. The current SM City Council continues to misspend millions of our tax dollars defending an illegal election scheme for the purpose of protecting their own power and privilege. Justice has not been served yet in this case.”
In a statement, Mayor Kevin McKeown said the ruling preserves the rights of voters to vote for all seven councilmembers.
“This long-awaited decision validates that we are all part of a single community, committed to inclusiveness and city-wide participation in decisions on our shared future,” he said. “As always, we encourage more diverse grassroots leadership, and city-wide service on our boards and commissions as well as in elected office. We all count, so be sure to complete the 2020 Census and, if you can, register to vote.”
According to the city, ruling will also prevent the plaintiff’s attempt to recover $22 million in attorney fees. City Hall has not disclosed the cost of fighting the lawsuit.