City of Santa Monica Successfully Defends its At-Large Voting System
California Appellate Court Holds Plaintiffs Must Establish “Dilution” to Successfully Challenge At-Large Voting Systems Under CVRA
Yesterday, the City of Santa Monica prevailed in a California Appellate Court case that overturned a February 2019 trial court ruling that the City’s at-large voting system violated both the California Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. In its opinion, the Second District Court of Appeal held that “dilution” is a required element in CVRA cases. In other words, CVRA plaintiffs must prove that an at-large voting system actually impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or to influence the outcome of an election. In this case, the plaintiffs, a city resident and neighborhood organization, failed to do so.
Prior to this highly anticipated decision in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica, many public agencies facing threats of litigation and significant attorneys’ fees have opted to transition to by-district elections. Those agencies that transitioned to by-district elections did so, at least in part, because of a number of recent trial court decisions that seemed to ignore dilution and focused largely, or almost exclusively, on whether racially polarized voting exists, i.e., whether a protected class’ electoral preferences are different from those of the rest of the electorate in a legally significant way. While yesterday’s decision is likely to be appealed to the California Supreme Court, it provides a glimmer of hope for public agencies that hope to survive CVRA challenges to their at-large voting systems.
In Pico Neighborhood Association, the plaintiffs challenged the City’s at-large voting system, which generally refers to systems in which all residents in the public agency’s jurisdiction vote for every member of the public agency’s governing board. The plaintiffs argued that the City’s at-large voting system violated both the CVRA and the California Constitution. Following a trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the City to switch to a by-district voting system, i.e., systems in which the public agency’s governing board is composed of members elected from electoral districts within the public agency’s jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeal has now reversed the trial court’s ruling in two significant ways. First, as to the plaintiffs’ challenge under the CVRA, the court held that “dilution” is a required element of a CVRA challenge and that the plaintiffs failed to establish that element. The court distinguished the dilution element from the “racially polarized voting” element, which the court found is “necessary but not sufficient.” The plaintiffs had argued that they need not demonstrate dilution where they made a sufficient showing of racially polarized voting. The court found the plaintiffs’ argument unpersuasive because several provisions of the CVRA require the plaintiffs to satisfy both the dilution element and the racially polarized voting element and because plaintiffs’ interpretation would render the Legislature’s choice to use the word “dilution” meaningless, a situation that the courts generally disfavor.
The plaintiffs also argued that they need not prove dilution because their proposed method of voting would increase the electoral “influence” of Latinos by creating a district in which Latinos would have 30 percent voting power, as opposed to the 10 percent voting power that they have for at-large elections in the City. The court rejected that argument as well, holding that it would create an “untenable standard” that would almost guarantee that plaintiffs would always be successful in CVRA challenges to at-large voting systems. While the court did not entirely preclude an influence argument, it did hold that the plaintiffs’ showing in this case was insufficient.
Second, the court turned to the plaintiffs’ challenge to the City’s at-large voting system on grounds that the system violated the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard by requiring only knowledge that an at-large system would inhibit the election of minority candidates, when it should have required the plaintiffs to prove a purpose of race discrimination.
The Court of Appeal held that the plaintiffs made an insufficient showing on this point as well. In particular, the court pointed to previous events. In 1946, the City departed from a by-district voting system and moved to an at-large voting system as part of its charter adoption. The court pointed to “uniform minority leader support” for the charter change as proof that the City did not move to an at-large voting system with a discriminatory purpose. In 1992, a City commission created a report that recommended that the City move away from its at-large voting system because it was not effectively ensuring minority representation, but stopped short of roundly endorsing by-district voting. The court again noted that minority leaders at that time were in favor of the City Council’s decision to maintain at-large voting while committing to further study of alternative voting methods, including by-district voting.
In reversing the trial court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on both CVRA and constitutional grounds, the Court of Appeal awarded costs to the City. An appeal to the California Supreme Court is likely.
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