“Local governments make many of the most important decisions that affect Californians’ everyday lives. They build and repair public streets, they define a neighborhood’s character through planning and zoning, and they decide where to place public parks and where to allow restaurants, bars, and liquor stores to operate…The genius of representative government, in all its guises, is that it is responsive to the people it serves.”
California Supreme Court Justice Kelli M. Evans wrote these powerful words in an August 2023 decision in Pico Neighborhood Association v. Santa Monica, a case challenging Santa Monica’s at-large system for city council elections. In an at-large district, voters from across the jurisdiction vote to elect candidates.
Originally filed in 2016, this case is one of several lawsuits in the past few years that put the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) to work. While this case had the potential to upend the California VRA, ultimately, the CVRA emerged clarified and strengthened. Today, Pico Neighborhood Association v. Santa Monica serves as an integral example of how state-level voting rights acts offer a creative solution to improving minority representation.
The California VRA is an important tool used to fight discrimination in voting.
Enacted in 2002 as the inaugural state-level VRA, the CVRA states that an “at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.” The federal VRA and state VRAs alike have been used to challenge the use of at-large elections when their use dilutes the voting power of voters of color.
The CVRA was implemented with the sole purpose of addressing systemic discrimination and posing a solution to the issue of at-large elections that prohibit minority voters from having fair representation. The CVRA has been utilized numerous times to fight vote dilution and has been upheld in both state and federal courts under the California and U.S. Constitutions. Due to the Act’s success, many localities switched from at-large elections to districted elections, which has resulted in increased minority representation in local offices throughout the state.
In California this has “resulted in a pronounced increase in Latino representation in just one election cycle, even in districts that are not majority-Latino…Even in districts where the minority group is one-third or less of a district’s electorate, minority candidates previously unsuccessful in at-large elections win district elections.”
The Pico Neighborhood Association argues that the at-large system of electing city council members dilutes Latino representation.
The neighborhood has a rich but fraught history. As a result of segregation and racist zoning policies, the Pico neighborhood was once one of the only regions of Santa Monica where non-white residents could live and own homes. However in the 1960s, construction of the I-10 freeway displaced the neighborhood’s Black and Latino residents. Despite the displacement of Black and Latino residents, the Latino population in Santa Monica continued to grow and many Latinos found refuge in the culturally rich Pico neighborhood.
Today, the Pico Neighborhood is Santa Monica’s most ethnically, generational, and racially diverse area. 2020 census data shows that over 16% of Santa Monica residents identified themselves as either Hispanic of Latino. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Latino residents made up almost 14% of the voting-age population in Santa Monica. In the Pico neighborhood specifically, Latino or Hispanic residents are 33% of the population.
In 2016, the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), Advocates for Malibu Public Schools (AMPS) and a Latina voter who resides in Santa Monica filed a lawsuit challenging the at-large method used to elect members to the Santa Monica City Council, a nonpartisan body with rotating elections.
In 1946, the Santa Monica city council switched from holding district elections to at-large elections. In the Santa Monica City Council context, at-large districting means that everyone in the city votes for candidates for the council. In addition, this has ramifications for who is mayor and mayor pro tempore of the city as every two years, after each election, the Santa Monica City Council selects one of its members to serve as mayor and another to serve as mayor pro tempore.
The plaintiffs argue that the at-large system used to elect candidates to the Santa Monica city council was implemented to dilute the voting power of Latino voters in Santa Monica in violation of the CVRA.
When the lawsuit was filed, only one Latino candidate had been elected to the city council since the adoption of at-large elections in 1946. In 2016, Pico residents did not feel represented by the larger city council as “not a single Latino resident of the Pico Neighborhood, where Latinos are concentrated, has been elected to the Santa Monica city council.”
The plaintiffs contend that Santa Monica’s adoption of at-large elections was motivated by “the desire to deny local government representation to racial and ethnic minorities.” Due to this, the plaintiffs argue that the decision to change elections from district-based to at-large elections was intentionally implemented with discriminatory intent and therefore the portions of the Santa Monica City Charter — which establishes the at-large system for city council elections — violates the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution.
In 2018, there was a six week trial where the plaintiffs argued that the city’s at large elections violated the CVRA and the city defended their electoral system.
At trial, the plaintiffs highlighted the importance of local representation and how the historically all-white council disregarded Latino voters:
“The most undesirable elements of the city – the freeway, the trash facility, the city’s maintenance yard, a park that continues to emit poisonous methane gas, hazardous waste collection and storage, and, most recently, the train maintenance yard – have all been dumped on the Latino concentrated Pico Neighborhood.”
Following the trial, in 2019, the Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor on both claims after finding that the at-large system violates both the CVRA and the California Constitution. The trial court also refuted the defendants’ argument that the CVRA would be unconstitutional if a remedy was applied, holding that a previous court already rejected that very argument.
In 2019, Santa Monica appealed to the California Court of Appeal.
The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and held that Santa Monica did not violate the CVRA or the state constitution. The fifty-page opinion concluded that the “reason for the asserted lack of electoral success in Santa Monica would appear to be that there are too few Latinos to muster a majority, no matter how the City might slice itself into districts or wards. At-large voting is not to blame. Small numbers are.”
However, since the CVRA does not require the same level of scrutiny as the federal VRA, it is not necessary for Latino voters to prove that they would have to comprise a majority-minority district in order to be successful in their CVRA claim.
The plaintiffs appealed to the state’s highest court, which took the case.
The PNA asked the California Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeal decision and pro-voting organizations and officials similarly expressed their support for the California Supreme Court to take the case. As many expressed to the court, the CVRA’s success was and still is incumbent upon its ability to remain flexible to ensure that Californians are not deprived of voting power.
In October 2020, the California Supreme Court granted review of the case and oral argument was finally held in June 2023.
As the case was pending before the state’s highest court, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) expressed concern that this case would be the nail in the coffin for the CVRA if the California Supreme Court adopted the Court of Appeal view that minority voters must be numerous enough to comprise a majority-minority district.
If the city of Santa Monica prevails, the CVRA’s protections against discriminatory at-large elections would be drastically weakened. In other words, if the city has its way, California would be set back 20 yearsu.s. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.)
Pro-voting and civil rights groups from across the state submitted amicus briefs to the court on behalf of the PNA. Some aptly pointed out the fact that even in progressive states like California, at-large elections can lead to “racially inequitable outcomes.”
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeal “misconstrued” the CVRA by failing to evaluate if the plaintiffs’ votes were diluted under the CVRA using the proper legal standard. Like the federal VRA, to prove a vote dilution claim under the CVRA there are a series of conditions the plaintiffs must meet. Unlike the federal VRA, the California Supreme Court concluded, the CVRA is broader in that it does not require a minority group to constitute a majority or near-majority in a hypothetical district.
The California Supreme Court then sent the case back down to the California Court of Appeal to correctly analyze if the at-large system violates the CVRA under the proper standards. The California Court of Appeal will decide if there is racially polarized voting and whether at-large elections dilute the voting power of Latino voters in Santa Monica.
In response to the high court’s ruling, the PNA wrote that “The ruling is a watershed moment in litigation that has already spanned nearly 8 years, and in the Pico Neighborhood’s struggle for representation that has spanned nearly 80 years. In that time, the Pico Neighborhood has been the victim of the City’s neglect, and the City’s dumping ground of convenience for all the undesirable elements of the City, from the trash sorting facility to the freeway, because it lacked a representative of its own in city government.”
While it is not yet complete, this critical eight-year old lawsuit solidifies the importance of the CVRA in promoting progress in local elections that impact voters’ daily lives.
This lawsuit is a critical example of how state-level voting rights acts can protect communities of color. The CVRA also provides a blueprint for how state legislatures could supplement the gaps in the federal VRA — a mission that became exceptionally important after Shelby County v. Holder.