SANTA MONICA — A California Appeals Court has ruled that Santa Monica’s at-large election system does not violate the rights of Latino voters. On July 9, Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. wrote in a unanimous decision, “The City did not violate the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) or the California Constitution.”
The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling overturns a previous decision by a trial court ruling in favor of the plaintiff, Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya. The trial court found that Santa Monica’s at-large voting system suppresses Latino’s voting power and further ordered Santa Monica to adopt a district-based voting system instead.
An at-large voting system allows for all residents of Santa Monica to vote for all seven City Council seats. A district-based voting system would require Santa Monica to be divided into seven wards, where each ward elects a representative on the City Council.
The trial began in 2017 when the Pico Neighborhood Association filed a complaint against Santa Monica claiming the at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.
The Pico Neighborhood Association argued that Santa Monica’s decision to enact an at-large voting system in 1946 and keep an at-large system in 1992 was with racially discriminative intent, thus violating equal protection under the California Constitution. The Pico Neighborhood Association also argued that the at-large system dilutes Latino voting power, thus violating the California Voting Rights Act. The Pico Neighborhood Association argued the proposed remedy, a district-based system, would strengthen the Latino vote rather than dilute it.
Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr. ruled against both of Pico’s arguments, writing, the plaintiff “offered no valid proof of [vote] dilution” and that “the City did not act with a racially discriminatory purpose in 1946 or in 1992.”
“We do not reach the remedies issue because there was no wrong to remedy.” Justice Wiley wrote.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represented Pico Neighborhood Association, said in a statement, “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.” Shenkman told Surf Santa Monica he plans to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
Attorney for the City of Santa Monica Ted Boutrous responded to the ruling saying, “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.”
Boutstrous added, “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 court found that the Pico Neighborhood Association was unable to prove vote dilution under the CVRA citing the failure to prove the proposed district-based system would be significantly better for Latino voters. The court stated the creation of new districts as previously mandated by Justice Yvette M. Palazuelos would result in a district that is 30% Latino voters, “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,” the court wrote.
In regard to the enacting of the at-large system in 1946 or 1992 with racially discriminatory intent, the court cited their decision with the finding that community leaders of color largely supported the decision in 1946. Furthermore, they found the decision to not change the voting system in 1992, instead asking for further study, was not a discriminatory act.
Shenkman said the court’s decision, “completely ignores the section (of the CVRA) that says you don’t have to have a majority minority district.” He also pointed out that in 1992 Loya would’ve won a Council Seat in the Pico Neighborhood if there had been district-based elections saying, “You don’t have to go to hypothetical, you have reality.”
Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown responded to the ruling saying, “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.”
Loya said, “The appellate courts ruling is wrong and threatens voting rights for people of color throughout the State of California.”
The Pico Neighborhood Association, who was hoping to recover $22 million in attorney fees and costs from the city based on the trial court’s decision, will recover nothing due to the recent ruling.
If the California Supreme Court chooses to not review this case, the Court of Appeal ruling will stand.