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City Council Should "Put Itself Back on the Right Side of History"

December 2, 2020

Nearly twenty years ago, I introduced Senate Bill 976, which later became known as the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), because I recognized how at-large elections stifle minority voices in municipal government. Supported by nearly all of my Democratic colleagues in the Assembly and Senate, the CVRA became law in 2002, and today it is among my proudest legislative accomplishments.

I have watched with pride as hundreds of cities, school districts, and other political subdivisions have adopted district-based elections to comply with the CVRA. Since the CVRA was enacted, minority representation on California’s city councils and school boards has nearly doubled, and recent academic studies confirm much of that increase is due to the CVRA. In my 12 years as Chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus, its ranks grew from 7 to 24 members, and no doubt the increased minority representation in municipal elected offices due to the CVRA will continue the growth of minorities in statewide and legislative offices as well.

I have also watched with bewilderment as the City of Santa Monica has paid millions of dollars to a Republican law firm to attack the CVRA and the voting rights of minorities in California. While claiming to be a “famously liberal city,” the City has taken the most reactionary positions in fighting against the voting rights of its residents and minorities throughout California. If the City were to somehow win the case, it would set back Californians’ voting rights by decades.

That is, no doubt, the reason why an army of Democratic elected officials and civil rights groups expressed their support for the plaintiffs in letters to the California Supreme Court, including:

• Secretary of State Alex Padilla;
• A coalition of 18 members of the 2002 California Legislature that passed the CVRA,
including three current members of Congress (Judy Chu, Lou Correa and Tony
• The Latino, Black and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucuses representing 49
current members of the California Legislature;
• Southwest Voter Registration Education Project;
• Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California;
• Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights;
• California Association of Black School Educators;
• California Latino School Board Association;
• Latino Caucus of the California Association of Counties;
• FairVote; and
• Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Other progressive groups, such as the California Democratic Party, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the NAACP have likewise expressed their support for district-based elections to replace the inherently discriminatory at-large elections imposed in Santa Monica. In fact, the late Chairman of the African American Caucus of the California Democratic Party penned an op-ed in 2017 imploring Santa Monica to adopt district-based elections.

Despite all of that, opponents of fair district-based elections in Santa Monica – mainly some of the at-large elected councilmembers themselves – insist that district elections would make the resulting council more divisive. But what could be more divisive than a five-years-long court battle about whether the City’s election system is racially discriminatory? The fear of a divisive city council is not based in reality. The cities that have adopted district-based elections, even those forced to do so by the courts, have uniformly come to recognize that district elections make for a more responsive and responsible city government. Just ask the councilmembers in Palmdale or Watsonville –- both cities forced to implement district-based elections after losing lengthy court battles -– or the councilmembers in Pasadena, who adopted district elections in response to a movement led by former Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole. They will all tell you that the district elections they once fought against, are more diverse, more representative and so much better than the at-large elections they clung to.

In this November’s election, Santa Monica voters selected three new councilmembers who campaigned on, among other things, their support for district elections, and unseated three incumbents who professed their continuing opposition to fair district-based elections. That outcome is remarkable in that incumbents had almost never lost their bids for re-election in Santa Monica; but it was predictable in light of the growing anti-incumbent sentiment fostered by a disconnect between the city council and the residents’ wishes. At trial, the Los Angeles Superior Court was presented with a survey that demonstrated Santa Monica voters, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, favored district elections over at-large elections; still, the then-city council members were steadfast in their opposite position and in their desire to keep fighting what Santa Monica voters prefer: district elections.

With its new composition, the Santa Monica City Council has an opportunity to now put the mistakes of its predecessors behind it, end the divisiveness of a five-year legal battle that is now pending before the California Supreme Court, and put itself back on the right side of history. Ultimately, the members of the City Council will be known not for how much affordable housing they facilitated or the environmentally-friendly city buildings they commissioned, but whether they stood in the proverbial schoolhouse door by opposing minority voting rights.

Hon. Senator Richard Polanco (Ret.)
Chair, Latino Legislative Caucus 1990-2002
Senate Majority Leader 1998-2002
State Senate, 22nd District, 1994-2002
State Assembly, 55th/45th Districts, 1986-1994

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