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Plaintiffs in Voting Rights Case File Final Brief

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By Jorge Casuso

May 17, 2021 -- Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit against the City submitted the final brief in the landmark case last week, paving the way for a ruling that could either upend Santa Monica's election system or impact voting districts across the state.

Submitted last Wednesday, the 48-page brief argues that in its ruling last July, the Court of Appeal failed to "even acknowledge" the law's mandate that eliminates the federal requirement for a majority-minority district.

The brief -- which asks the court to affirm a trial court's ruling that Santa Monica's election system deliberately discriminates against Latino voters -- opens by citing California's landmark voting rights law.

"The California voting Rights Act (CVRA) means what it says -- 'The fact that members of a protected class are not geographically compact or concentrated may not preclude a finding of racially polarized voting, or a violation'" of the relevant section of this code, wrote the plaintiffs' lead attorney Kevin Shenkman.

"Indeed, the central purpose of the CVRA was to expand California's voting rights protections beyond those provided under federal law, and in particular to include deprivations of minority voters' ability to influence elections as a violation of their voting rights," Shenkman wrote.

The plaintiffs' brief responds to the brief filed by the City in March, which argues that Latino voters "are too small in numbers and too dispersed for any alternative electoral scheme meaningfully to increase their electoral influence."

The District system proposed by the plaintiffs, the City argued, would backfire "by packing one-third of (Latino voters) in a district where they would be too few to meaningfully influence election outcomes."

In its brief, the City asked the court to use the election of two Latino Councilmembers from the Pico Neighborhood last November to defend Santa Monica's at-large election system ("City Seeks to Use Recent Election Results in Voting Rights Case," March 23, 2021).

Shenkman -- who did not address the City's request in the brief filed Wednesday -- believes "special circumstances," including the City's response to the May 31 riots, contriburted to the election results.

"There's an election every two years, and the courts don't act that quickly," he told the Lookout in March. "It would be never ending. Looking at one election gives a distorted view."

The Supreme Court will focus on the Appellate Court's 50-page ruling that found the plaintiffs' failed to prove that Santa Monica's at-large election system "diluted" the voting power of Latinos, who make up 14 percent of the local electorate ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

Carving out a District with 30 percent Latino voters, as mandated by Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos, would make little difference, the court said ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 15, 2019).

In his reply brief Shenkman strongly disagreed with the ruling.

"The Legislature sought to protect minority community voting power and influence by enacting the CVRA. But the Court of Appeal has impeded that effort," Shenkman wrote.

"Denying minority voters the protections of the CVRA because they are not sufficiently geographically concentrated to comprise more than an arbitrary percentage of a district's voters, as Defendant and the Court of Appeal propose, contravenes the text, purpose and legislative history of the CVRA," he wrote.

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