The city of Santa Monica received a letter from a Malibu law firm in late 2015 claiming that its at-large election system — in which all voters choose the whole city council — discriminated against Latino residents. We were both on the City Council at the time and found it surprising, not least because the then-mayor was Mexican American.
Still, the letter threatened a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act if the council did not immediately agree to change to district-based elections. It turns out Santa Monica wasn’t alone. Dozens of cities have received similar demand letters — many from the same lawyer — and many have altered their election systems in response.
Santa Monica, however, has decided to fight this lawsuit. Why? Because making electoral changes based on lawsuits instead of the will of voters diminishes rather than enhances voting rights. Equally important, the facts in Santa Monica and the experience of cities elsewhere show that carving the city into districts will not meaningfully enhance local Latino political representation.
The Pico neighborhood is the focus of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, but the 13% of Santa Monica voters who are Latino live in every part the city. Under our existing at-large election system, Latino candidates have won seats on all of the city’s governing bodies, including two currently serving on the seven-member City Council. As the Los Angeles Times reported, in this kind of racially integrated landscape, a change to district-based elections is unlikely to increase Latino representation.
GrassrootsLab, a consulting firm that specializes in local government politics, studied the electoral outcomes in 22 cities that switched to district elections because of a California Voting Rights Act legal threat. Only seven of the 22 cities saw any increase in Latino elected officials. Indeed, some people are trying to make the case that district elections create their own set of problems. The former mayor of Poway, for instance, in October filed a federal lawsuit arguing that forcing district elections ultimately violates the constitutional rights of other voters.
Santa Monica voters have twice rejected proposals to move to district-based elections, in 1975 and 2002. A district system may work well in larger cities like Los Angeles, but dividing up our 8.3-square-mile community will pit neighborhood against neighborhood, increasing balkanization and encouraging legislative deal-making to serve the interests of individual districts rather than the city as a whole.
A united Santa Monica has been able to tackle large issues, including crime, homelessness, affordable housing, mobility, economic growth, educational opportunity and community well-being. We work hard to accomplish a lot, in part because council members are accountable to every Santa Monica voter every two years. With district elections, residents would be represented by only one council member, who would face election only once every four years.
Other California cities believed just as strongly in their at-large election systems. They nonetheless switched to district elections out of fear of overwhelming legal costs. In addition to paying their own lawyers, cities that lose such cases have to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees, according to the state law. In Palmdale, where one of the first high-profile cases was settled in 2015, the attorney fees hit $4.5 million.
We are fighting this lawsuit because we believe it lacks merit. But other cities without our financial resources haven’t had that choice. Instead, decisions affecting the heart of the democratic process were driven as much by fear of legal costs as by desire to ensure that everybody’s vote counts. This cannot be what the state legislature intended when it passed the California Voting Rights Act in 2001.
If Santa Monica voters believe that district-based voting will best serve our city, we can go to the ballot box to make that choice. If the California legislature believes that district-based voting is the only system that works, it should mandate the switch statewide. But if state lawmakers believe that Californians should have a choice as to how they elect their local representatives, the California Voting Rights Act should be amended to follow the federal Voting Rights Act, which ensures that court-mandated districting and payment of attorneys’ fees occurs only when a district-based system is truly needed to make sure minority votes count.