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City Submits Final Brief in Voting Rights Appeal

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By Jorge Casuso

January 22, 2020 -- Candidates preferred by Santa Monica's Latino voters almost always win, and assuming they prefer candidates with Spanish surnames amounts to stereotyping.

That was the City's key argument in its final brief filed Tuesday in a voting rights case being heard by a California Appeals Court.

"No evidence -- only illogical speculation -- supports the trial court’s conclusion that the City’s at-large (election) system dilutes Latino votes," the City's attorneys wrote.

The lower court, they said, also erred by assuming that the district elections it ordered the City to hold using a map drawn by the plaintiff's expert would enhance Latino voting strength.

"Latino voters, despite their relatively small numbers, have usually been able to elect the candidates their votes show they prefer," the City argued.

Replacing the current system with the plaintiff's map "not only would be anti-democratic and unconstitutional, it would not lead to better outcomes for Latino voters, who consistently prevail in the current at-large system," the City said.

To back its argument, the City provided an election-by-election analysis of ten City Council races held since 1994.

"Latino voters’ preferred candidates (both Latino and non-Latino) have won the vast majority of Council elections" over the past 25 years, although Latinos make up only 13.6 percent of the City's electorate, the brief said.

"Unable to rebut this fundamental fact," the plaintiffs chose to "disregard those candidates and elections that do not fit the false narrative that Latino-preferred candidates usually lose because of white bloc voting," the City wrote.

In their responding brief filed December 27, the plaintiffs emphasized that only one Latino candidate has ever been elected to serve on the City Council ("Plaintiffs File Response in Voting Rights Appeal," January 6, 2020).

They noted that since the current election system was implemented in 1947, only one Latino has been elected to the Council "even though Latino voters overwhelmingly support Latino candidates."

The City's 81-page brief filed Tuesday notes that the at-large election system the plaintiffs claim was intended to discriminate against minority voters was backed by prominent minority leaders when it was adopted in 1946.

"Respondents have no answer to the abundant evidence showing that the Freeholders (Charter) intended to (and did) expand electoral opportunities for minorities," the City argued.

In addition, the brief notes that 82 percent of Latino voters rejected a failed 1992 ballot measure that, among other charter changes, called for district elections.

"Santa Monica’s electoral system is fair, open, and lawful," the City's attorney's wrote. "It has allowed Latino voters, despite their relatively small numbers, consistently to elect candidates of their choice."

The City asked the three-judge appeals panel to review "de novo" whether Santa Monica’s elections "are characterized by legally significant racially polarized voting."

In conclusion, it asked the court to reverse the trail court's decision or, "at the very least," to reverse it in part and instruct the City to draw a district map with public input.

Under an expedited schedule requested by the City, the Appeals Court will make its final ruling by July 10 ("Appeals Court Grants City's Request to Expedite Voting Rights Case," May 7, 2019).

That gives the City time to prepare for the scheduled Council election this November, officials said ("Parties in Voting Rights Suit Duel Over District Mapping," January 9, 2020).

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