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Court of Appeal Upholds At-Large City Council Elections in Santa Monica; Clarifies Legal Standard Under California Voting Rights Act

July 14, 2020
A California Court of Appeal issued an opinion last week finding no merit to a lawsuit alleging that the City of Santa Monica’s at-large elections system violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). 
The opinion offers further clarity for cities on the legal standards used to assess CVRA claims, as requested by the League in its friend-of-the-court brief.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claimed that the at-large system diluted the voting power of Latinos. The trial judge agreed, based in part on evidence that Latinos could obtain 30 percent voting power in one district under a proposed by-district election system, as opposed to 14 percent voting power city-wide under the at-large elections system. The trial judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered the city to switch from at-large to by-district elections.

The city appealed, arguing that the trial court misapplied the legal standards for determining whether at-large elections dilute voting power for purposes of the CVRA. The Court of Appeal agreed with the city, and reversed the trial court’s ruling. The Court of Appeal held that: “Dilution requires a showing, not of a merely marginal percentage increase in a proposed district, but evidence the change is likely to make a difference in what counts in a democracy: electoral results.” 

Applying this standard, the Court of Appeal concluded that the plaintiffs failed to make a sufficient showing of vote dilution. The Court noted that “30 percent is not enough to win a majority and to elect someone to the city council, even in a district system.” Therefore, there was “no dilution because the result with one voting system is the same as the result with the other: no representation.”

Cities who have questions about any potential impact of the Court's ruling on their city should consult with their city attorney.

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