Santa Monica Lookout Opinion
|Let the Appeals Court Decide Voting Rights Case|
September 11, 2023
We strongly support the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and its intent to ensure that voters who are part of marginalized communities have the opportunity to influence local elections and to elect their preferred candidates. While there is a federal law, the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the CVRA expands upon the VRA to take into consideration the unique circumstances that California voters face.
Now that the California Supreme Court has issued their ruling on how a plaintiff must prove vote dilution in order to demonstrate a violation of the CVRA, it is up to the Santa Monica City Council to ensure that the “totality of the facts and circumstances” of the City’s current at-large voting system are carefully examined by the Court of Appeals so they can determine if there has been a violation of the CVRA, and if so, what the appropriate remedy should be.
We urge the City Council to heed the intention of the California Supreme Court and give the Court of Appeals the opportunity to re-evaluate the Santa Monica CVRA case.
Contrary to some recent media coverage, the Supreme Court did not rule “on the ultimate question of whether the City’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA” or declare the plaintiffs the victors, but rather took the opportunity to clarify some of the ambiguities of the law. The City did not lose (or win) the case and neither did the Plaintiffs. In fact, the Supreme Court did exactly what they set out to do and exactly what we expected them to do.
The Supreme Court clarified that both racially polarized voting and vote dilution must be present and proven in order to prove that there is a violation of the CVRA, not solely racially polarized voting as argued by the Plaintiffs' attorney.
Further, the Court included a discussion of potential remedies that should or could be considered if a violation is proven, which included voting systems such as ranked choice voting, cumulative voting, and others. In defining how vote dilution must be proven, the Supreme Court also noted that protected class voters should not be made “worse off” by a potential remedy:
“To replace at-large with district elections under a dilution theory, a successful plaintiff must show not merely that the protected class would have a real electoral opportunity in one or more hypothetical districts, but also that the incremental gain in the class’s ability to elect its candidate of choice in such districts would not be offset by a loss of the class’s potential to elect its candidates of choice elsewhere in the locality. (...)
"As both sides in this proceeding agree, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate a net gain in the protected class’s potential to elect candidates under an alternative system, it has not shown the at-large method of election “impairs” the ability of the protected class to elect its preferred candidates.”
Although the potential for other remedies was always in the language of the law, the only potential remedy that is specifically identified by name is single-member districts. Unfortunately, this has created a situation where jurisdictions have not always implemented specifically tailored remedies to fit their unique situations but instead have been more likely to switch from at-large elections to single-member districts, which can actually reduce the voting power of marginalized communities in certain circumstances.
This issue was addressed by the Supreme Court in their ruling through their comment that the protected class should not be made worse off by a potential remedy. If Santa Monica were forced to switch to by-district elections, Latino voters would certainly be made worse off.
There have been many different ideas brought forth within our community for how we can make voting easier, how we can have more informed civic engagement, and what voting system may be the best option for Santa Monica.
We have had robust discussions around this issue since long before the CVRA lawsuit was filed and these discussions will continue long after the case is resolved. If we wish to change the method(s) by which we elect our representatives, that decision should be made through an open, public process and ratified by the voters, and not through an opaque settlement decided in closed session behind closed doors. As we are a charter city, our form of government is for the citizens alone to decide by voting at the ballot box.
Regulations like the California Voting Rights Act help move California forward by mandating that voters should not be unfairly discriminated against in exercising their right to vote. Every jurisdiction is different and there is no single voting system that is right for every one of them.
The CVRA’s intent was to create an accessible pathway for the voters of cities and other jurisdictions to ensure that the voices of marginalized communities were not unfairly drowned out by a majority who would consistently outnumber and out-vote them at the voting booth.
While there are differences of opinion among our community on whether Santa Monica is in violation of the CVRA and if so, what the remedy should be, the law and our legal system provide a pathway to make that determination and facilitate a resolution, if one is needed. Let’s follow the process and let the case be heard by the Court of Appeals.
Ana Maria Jara
(Names listed in alphabetical order)
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