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Santa Monica Is Case Study in Voter Discrimination, Report Contends

By Jorge Casuso

October 10, 2023 -- Santa Monica's switch to at-large elections in 1946 exemplified a nationwide effort to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters, according to a joint study released this month.

The 47-page report -- authored by professors from UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan and Harvard -- was released as Santa Monica is fighting a Voting Rights lawsuit that would upend its electoral system ("Supreme Court Reverses Voting Rights Ruling," August 23, 2023).

The report released October 3 -- titled "The Insulation of Local Governance from Black Electoral Power" -- uses Santa Monica as a case study to illustrate how the Great Migration of Blacks from the South "shaped the decision of city elites to switch to city manager government."

Its findings also show how "at a critical juncture in the course of the country’s national democratization, local governments acted to stymie it."

And the report explores how the "national democratizing reforms" of the 1960s "did not erase enduring local practices of racial authoritarianism" which have continued under Santa Monica's liberal establishment.

Santa Monica's switch from a commmision-based system to a City manager government with a seven-member Council elected at-large was approved by local voters in 1946 after the City's black population began to grow, according to the report.

"The effects of the change in Santa Monica’s governance have continued to reverberate for decades," according to the report.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, the all-white, elite-dominated city government implemented 'urban renewal' and freeway construction that decimated Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods and dispersed thousands of their residents, many of them outside of the city."

For the six decades after the at-large system was adopted, municipal elections would remain highly polarized by race despite a tenant revolt that ushered in rent control in 1979 and led to the dominance of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMMR).

"Indeed, the self-styled racial liberals running the city since the late 1970s have continued to block changes to the city’s political structure," the report found.

This is "in large part because their ‘party’ -- Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights -- has benefited from slate nominations that benefit from the continued use of at-large elections," according to the report.

The report notes that only one of the 16 Latino candidates who ran for City Council between 1946 and 2016 was elected. The exception was Tony Vazquez, who ran with SMRR's backing.

In its defense of the at-large election system challenged by Latino plaintiffs, the City has argued that since then three Latinos have been elected to the Council -- Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra in 2020 and Lana Negrete in 2022.

Proponents of switching to District elections counter that it took a pandemic and a riot for the SMRR-backed Council to lose three seats during an unprecedented voter revolt.

They also note that Negrete, who was appointed to the council in 2021, was elected last November after Santa Monica's liberal establishment split the vote.

The two other winners -- Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick -- were backed by SMRR, the hotel workers union and the Democratic Club.

"We contend," the report's authors write, "that, in response to democratizing impulses, incumbents effect a 'clawing-back' of political power from emerging coalitions and their officeholders."

The study was authored by Jacob M. Grumbach, an associate professor
at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley; Robert Mickey, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University.

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