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Stop Fighting Lawsuit, Voting Rights Act Sponsor Urges City Council

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By Jorge Casuso

December 2, 2020 -- The sponsor of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) urged Santa Monica's newly elected City Council on Tuesday to end the lawsuit filed by Latino activists and "put itself back on the right side of history."

Retired State Sen. Richard Polanco -- who introduced the bill that became law in 2002 -- cautioned in an op-ed sent to the Lookout Tuesday that a legal victory for Santa Monica "would set back Californians’ voting rights by decades."

The case is before the California Supreme Court after the plaintiffs appealed an Appellate Court decision finding Santa Monica's election system did not discriminate against Latino voters ("Santa Monica's Election System Does Not Violate Latino's Voting Rights, Appeals Court Rules," July 9, 2020).

Polanco noted that the three incoming Council members -- Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra -- backed District elections during their campaigns ("New Council Could Have Votes to End Voting Rights Lawsuit," November 12, 2020).

"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," Polanco wrote.

"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."

Polanco -- who chaired the Latino Legislative Caucus from 1990 to 2002 and was Senate Majority Leader from 1998 to 2002 -- said the district system the Santa Monica plaintiffs are seeking has nearly doubled minority representation on city councils and school boards across the state.

"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," Polanco wrote.

"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."

Responding to Polanco's op-ed, City officials noted that Santa Monia voters have "overwhelmingly rejected" proposals to create districts and that there is no "legal basis" under the CVRA "to force the City to change to district-based elections."

"The City has never challenged the constitutionality of the CVRA as a facial matter or as it applies in other jurisdictions," City officials said in a statement.

"Rather, the City has argued that the plaintiffs’ CVRA claim lacks merit because the evidence shows that Santa Monica’s at-large election system has consistently resulted in the election of candidates preferred by Latino voters."

Officials noted that incoming Council members de la Torre and Parra are Latino, while recently appointed Councilmember Kristin McCowan, who was elected to a two-year term, is Black.

All three live in the Pico Neighborhood, which is the focus of the lawsuit.

City officials also included incumbent Gleam Davis among the Latino Council members elected last month since she was adopted and her biological father was Mexican ("Santa Monica Has Two Latino Council Members, City Officials Contend," July 10, 2017).

"Santa Monica voters elected the most diverse Council in City history, including three Latino councilmembers and one African-American councilmember, with three of these members residing in the Pico neighborhood," City officials said.

Polanco noted that "an army of Democratic elected officials and civil rights groups expressed their support for the plaintiffs in letters to the California Supreme Court" ("Voting Rights Lawsuit Pits Progressive Leaders Against Santa Monica," September 23, 2020).

The retired senator said he has "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," Polanco wrote.

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