Santa Monica City Attorney’s statement on Court’s ruling to deny Plaintiff’s attempt to prevent certification of local 2018 Council election

November 27, 2018

Santa Monica City Attorney’s statement on Court’s ruling to deny Plaintiff’s attempt to prevent certification of local 2018 Council election

SANTA MONICA, Calif. – “The City is pleased with the Court’s decision. Nearly 40,000 Santa Monica residents voted in the 2018 election. The Court’s decision honors those votes and rejects plaintiffs’ inexplicable effort to favor a past Council (also selected at-large) over the Council chosen by the voters just weeks ago. The result sought by plaintiffs would have moved our democracy backward, not forward.”

  • Lane Dilg, Santa Monica City Attorney

Background Information

The City of Santa Monica is an inclusive, progressive city that seeks to protect the voting rights of all its citizens. The small, beach community is only 8.3 square miles with just over 46,000 households. The City has used an at-large election system since 1915 which elects seven Councilmembers to represent the community as a whole. The current system was adopted by the voters in 1946, and voters have twice opted to maintain the at-large process. 

In 2016, a small group of plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging that the at-large election system dilutes Latino/a voting power in violation of the California Voting Rights Act and discriminates against Latino/a voters in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.  The plaintiffs’ claims resulted in a trial that lasted almost 6 weeks in the Los Angeles Superior Court.  

As the City demonstrated at trial, Santa Monica has a history of electing people of color, including Latino/as to a variety of elected positions.  Latino/as make up approximately 13% of Santa Monica voters and hold at least 1 out of 7 (14%) City Council seats and 4 out of 19 (21%) of the City’s other elected positions on the Rent Control, SMMUSD, and Community College Boards.  In fact, at the time the lawsuit was filed, Tony Vazquez, a longtime Mexican-American elected official for our City, was serving as the City’s mayor.  Between 2002 and 2016, candidates preferred by Latino/a voters won at least 70% of the time in Santa Monica City Council races, and at least 80% percent in races for the local school board, including the plaintiff’s husband. 

On November 8, 2018, the judge issued a one-sentence tentative decision in favor of the plaintiffs, with no explanation or insight into the tentative ruling.  This decision is not yet final.  

On November 15, 2018, the City requested that the Court provide an explanation of the basis for its tentative decision.  Specifically, the City asked the Court to provide reasoning for its conclusions on questions such as: 

  • What must a CVRA plaintiff prove in order to show racially polarized voting? 
  • Which City Council elections did the Court consider?
  • How did the Court determine which candidates were preferred by Latino voters?
  • Must a candidate be Latino in order to be preferred, or is it the status of the candidate as the chosen representative of Latino voters, rather than the race of the candidate, that is relevant?  
  • If the race of the candidates does matter, which candidates did the Court find to be Latino for purposes of the CVRA?
  • Must a CVRA plaintiff prove vote dilution by showing that Latino voters would have a greater opportunity to elect candidates of their choice under an alternative electoral system?  If so, did plaintiffs prove vote dilution and how?
  • Did plaintiffs prove that Santa Monica’s method of election has caused a disparate impact on Latino voters?  Were plaintiffs required to prove that minority voters would have a greater electoral opportunity under some other electoral system?
  • Did plaintiffs prove that the relevant decisionmakers affirmatively intended to discriminate against minority voters by adopting and maintaining the current at-large electoral system?  If so, what were the relevant decisions, who were the relevant decisionmakers, and what evidence did plaintiffs present showing that those decisionmakers intended to discriminate? 
  • Did the court consider the legitimate, non-discriminatory purposes of the City’s at-large electoral system, including but not limited to (i) ensuring that all councilmembers focus on all issues citywide, rather than only those issues facing their particular districts; (ii) giving every voter a say concerning all seven Council seats, not just one; and (iii) affording voters the opportunity to vote for Council seats every two years, not every four years?

The Court has not yet ruled on the City’s request. Plaintiffs have argued that they should be allowed to write the Court’s decision, which would determine the future of Santa Monica’s election system without any input from the community.  

This morning, the plaintiffs appeared before the Court to ask the Court to halt certification of the results of the 2018 Santa Monica election.  The City opposed this effort and the Court denied plaintiffs’ request for a Temporary Restraining Order.  Nearly 40,000 Santa Monica residents voted in the last election.  By urging the court to discard those votes before a final decision has even been reached by the trial judge, the plaintiffs favored a past Council (also selected at-large) over the Council chosen by the voters just weeks ago.

Plaintiffs have further proposed, in briefing filed on November 19, 2018, that the Court should impose on the City a seven-district electoral map developed by the plaintiffs’ expert and a handful of community members and associations selected by the plaintiffs and their attorneys.  The City has opposed this proposed remedy.  The City contends that plaintiffs have failed to show that this map -- which received neither input nor approval from the voters -- would enhance the voting strength of Latinos.  In fact, plaintiffs have failed to show that the map would enhance the voting strength of Latinos in the “Pico” district drawn by the plaintiffs; and it would, in fact, dilute the votes of Latinos and other minority voters in other overwhelmingly white districts.  The City further contends that the plaintiffs failed to prove at trial that any alternative voting system would enhance Latino voting strength in Santa Monica. 

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