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Friday, August 25, 2023


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C.A.’s Opinion in Santa Monica Voting Case Is Reversed

State Supreme Court Rejects Reasoning That California Voting Rights Act Is Not Breached by City-Wide Elections of City Council Members Because Under District Elections, Latinos Would Form a Majority in No District


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday reversed a decision of the Court of Appeal for this district that declared Santa Monica’s system of city-wide elections of City Council members to be lawful because, even if the city were chopped into seven districts, as the trial court ordered, Latinos would not form a majority in any of those districts.

Even so, Justice Kelli Evans wrote for a unanimous high court, under the present system, the voting power of Latinos might be “diluted,” in violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (“CVRA”). In a district with a large number of Latinos—even if they did not form a majority or near-majority—Latinos could, joined with others, elect candidates of their choice, she explained.

At present, four members of the City Council are elected in presidential-election years and each voter may cast a ballot for four candidates; three members are chosen in gubernatorial-election years, with each voter having three votes. Under the plan mandated by Los Angeles Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos, in response to a challenge to the at-large voting system by the Pico Neighborhood Association, there would be seven “single member” districts—that is, each district being represented by one office-holder.

Div. Eight’s View

Palazuelos’s judgment was reversed by Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal on July 9, 2020, and its opinion was modified in Aug, 5. The Supreme Court granted review on Oct. 21 and ordered Div. Eight’s opinion, authored by Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr., depublished.

Wiley pointed out in that opinion:

“[T]he dilution element required Pico to prove the City’s at-large method impaired Latinos’ ability to elect candidates of their choice or to influence the outcome of an election as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of Latino voting rights.”

He reasoned:

“Pico proposed a district system that, for one district within the City, would have 30 percent Latino voting power, as compared to the 14 percent city-wide voting power Latinos hold in at-large elections.

“Pico’s showing was insufficient. Pico failed to prove the City’s at-large system diluted the votes of Latinos. Assuming race-based voting, 30 percent is not enough to win a majority and to elect someone to the City Council, even in a district system. There was no dilution because the result with one voting system is the same as the result with the other: no representation.

“Pico thus failed to show the at-large system was the reason Latinos allegedly have had trouble getting elected to the City Council. 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 justice went on to comment:

“Dilution requires a showing, not of a merely marginal percentage increase in a proposed district, but evidence the change is likely to make a difference in what counts in a democracy: electoral results.”

Evan’s Opinion

Evans said in her opinion reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision:

“We conclude the Court of Appeal misconstrued the CVRA. To prevail on a CVRA claim, a plaintiff who has established the existence of racially polarized voting in an at-large system need not prove that the protected class would constitute a majority—or, as the City proposes, a near majority—of a hypothetical single-member district. City council elections, after all, are nonpartisan…, and the record here shows that winning candidates often earn only a plurality of the vote.”

She said, quoting language in Elections Code §14027, that “what is required to establish ‘dilution’ of a protected class’s ‘ elect candidates of its choice’…is proof that, under some lawful alternative electoral system, the protected class would have the potential, on its own or with the help of crossover voters, to elect its preferred candidate.”

The justice said that single-member districts would qualify as a “lawful alternative” but that would not be the sole acceptable approach. A court, in acting on a dilution claim, would have to “undertake a searching evaluation of the totality of the facts and circumstances” in coming up with a solution, she indicated.

“Because the Court of Appeal did not evaluate the dilution element of the CVRA under this standard, we reverse the judgment and remand the matter to the Court of Appeal for it to reconsider in the first instance the CVRA claim presented here,” Evans wrote.

She noted:

“We express no view on the ultimate question of whether the City’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA.” 

The case is Pico Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Santa Monica, 2023 S.O.S. 3141.


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