February 28, 2024

Discrimination In Santa Monica?

The Fight for Representation. For almost eight years, Latinos in Santa Monica have been in court trying to show they are being discriminated against because of the manner in which elections for City Council have been conducted. In Pico Neighborhood Association vs Santa Monica, Justice Kelli M. Evans stated in the August 2023 California Supreme Court decision in the case:  “Local governments make many of the most important decisions that affect Californians’ everyday lives. They build and repair public streets, they define a neighborhood’s character through planning and zoning, and they decide where to place public parks and where to allow restaurants, bars, and liquor stores to operate…The genius of representative government, in all its guises, is that it is responsive to the people it serves.” 

But this representative government loses its “genius” if some votes have less value than other votes. How can this occur? Well, Santa Monica has “at-large” voting for its City Council. In an at-large election system, candidates run for office in the entire jurisdiction (such as an entire city or county) rather than in specific districts.  Voters cast their ballots for candidates across the entire jurisdiction, and the candidates with the most votes win the available seats.  Unlike single-member districts, where each district elects its own representative, at-large systems elect representatives based on the overall vote count. In at-large systems, minority groups may experience lower levels of representation compared to their proportion of the population.  At-large elections can lead to a situation where a cohesive majority group consistently wins all the seats. This means that minority voters preferences are often overridden by the majority. Since minority groups are less likely to form a majority in the entire jurisdiction, their ability to elect representatives is diminished.


How the “At-Large” Method of Voting for City Council Members Can Hurt Minorities 

“The most undesirable elements of the city – the freeway, the trash facility, the city’s maintenance yard, a park that continues to emit poisonous methane gas, hazardous waste collection and storage, and, most recently, the train maintenance yard – have all been dumped on the Latino concentrated Pico Neighborhood.” 

In the case of Santa Monica, the Latino population was 14% of the city’s population when the lawsuit was originally brought in 2016, but since at-large voting was implemented in 1946 when it changed over from district voting, there had been only one Latino elected to the Council. Today Latinos make up 16% of the population.

The Legal Basis for the Lawsuit. In 2002, California passed the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) under which the Pico Neighborhood brought its lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica. This Act was more expansive in protecting voters than the federal Voting Rights Act. The CVRA states that the “at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.” 

For decades, California’s five largest cities have had district voting whereby the cities are segmented into districts and each district gets to elect its own council member. Using this method, neighborhoods, including minority neighborhoods, all get a say in the running of the city. But there are still hundreds of California cities that retain the at-large voting for City Council. A minority of voters may find itself unable to elect even a single member of a multi-member body when the members are elected at-large, but would be able to elect one or more representatives if the members were elected by districts.

The voting rights group Nonprofit VOTE wrote in a 2017 report, “If you want to rig a local election, there’s an easier way than stuffing a ballot box, gerrymandering a district, or amassing a campaign war chest to scare off challengers. Have your city or county adopt winner-take-all ‘At-Large’ voting, where, instead of using districts, all or most council or school committee candidates must run ‘at large,’ city or countywide.”

Even if the minority is a majority in a city, with at-large elections the minority can still lose its chosen candidates. Nonprofit VOTE states, “Using plurality rules, fifty percent of the voters can, if they mostly support the same candidates, win all the seats. In fact, the majority block doesn’t even have to compose 50 percent of the electorate. All that’s needed is for one large neighborhood or voting block to vote cohesively enough to build up an insurmountable lead over the rest of the field. Their favored candidates will pick up plenty of other votes as a secondary choice of voters who’d really prefer other candidates,” the group explained. “As a result, the majority of voters can see all their favored candidates lose election after election.” 


OUCH! That hurts! Since the implementation of the CVRA, the number of cities switching to district voting from at-large voting has increased five-fold. One of the reasons for this is the tremendous cost of a city losing a lawsuit under the CVRA. If a city loses its case defending its at-large voting, it must pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees! Famously, the City of Palmdale had to pay $4.5 million dollars to plaintiffs after it lost a battle to retain at-large voting. The city has a population that is nearly 67 percent Latino and had only one Latino ever elected to the council! The city was compelled by the lawsuit to eliminate at-large elections and divide into four districts—two with Latino majority populations. Other losers were Escondido ($385,000) and Santa Clara ($4,512,500). These judgments are, of course, in addition to millions upon millions the cities spent defending at-large voting!


Status of the Santa Monica Case. The Pico Neighborhood Association prevailed in the Superior Court which found that the Latino vote was improperly diluted. The City of Santa Monica appealed the decision. The California Court of Appeal reversed the Superior Court’s decision and held that Santa Monica did not violate the CVRA or the state constitution because no matter how the districts could be formulated, there were not enough Latinos to have the majority in any district. The California Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal’s decision was incorrect in holding that the minority had to be majority or near majority before at-large voting violated the CVRA or the State Constitution. The Supreme Court has sent the case back down to the California Court of Appeal to correctly analyze if the at-large system violates the CVRA under the proper standards. The California Court of Appeal will decide if there is racially polarized voting and whether at-large elections dilute the voting power of Latino voters in Santa Monica. In response to the California Supreme Court’s ruling, the Pico Neighborhood Association stated: “The ruling is a watershed moment in litigation that has already spanned nearly 8 years, and in the Pico Neighborhood’s struggle for representation that has spanned nearly 80 years. In that time, the Pico Neighborhood has been the victim of the City’s neglect, and the City’s dumping ground of convenience for all the undesirable elements of the City, from the trash sorting facility to the freeway, because it lacked a representative of its own in city government.”

Given the huge losses incurred by cities who fought to retain at-large voting, one must wonder why the Santa Monica City Council is risking a huge judgment against it. What are they so afraid of? Is this even remotely fiscally responsible? What is the City to gain other than retention of power in White hands?  Oh, maybe that’s it.