Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Robert Butchko
Observer Staff Writer 

Lawsuit Alleges Santa Monica's Elections System is Racist

Santa Monica Finds Common Cause with Breitbart in its Opposition to the California voting rights act


Santa Monica poll workers at a station in Christine Emerson Reed Park, November 2016

Arguments are currently being heard in court with the aim of forcing Santa Monica to change its electoral system to elect council members by district, a miniature version of the US House of Representatives, in order to force the city to give more representation to minorities.

The suit filed by Pico Neighborhood Association alleges that the current 'at large' elections are racially biased against the Latino community and thus violate the California Voting Rights Act.

At a NOMA (North of Montana Association) meeting Thursday night, members packed into the back of a library excited for a scheduled debate over districting- one that would not occur. Current council member Glean Davis was scheduled to present the city's perspective, but did not speak at the meeting. Instead, Kevin Shenkman, attorney for the plaintiffs, laid out the pros of district-based voting to the association members for approximately an hour.

"The city council majority's insistence on carrying on its expensive fight against the voting rights of their constituents is disappointing for two reasons," Shenkman said in a prepared statement summarizing his speech. Shenkman suggested that the millions of dollars spent on the lawsuit could be better invested in public services, and expressed disappointment that "this purportedly progressive city is finding common cause with Breitbart in its opposition to the California voting rights act."

Due to her upcoming appearance as a witness in the lawsuit, Gleam Davis was forced to bite her tongue and hope attendees would bring up the city's points of contention on their own. Proponents of the 'at large' system duly pointed out that the current system has resulted in two Hispanics being elected to the city council, and worry a change would only serve to divide Santa Monica by neighborhood. One of those two Hispanic council members is Gleam Davis, who only publicly announced her heritage during the course of the lawsuit, a move that prompted some criticism. Santa Monica's legal answer to the accusation is chock full of data regarding exactly how Latino voters have gotten their preferred candidates elected to the council and school board in the past, aiming to convince the judge there is no problem of racially polarized voting in Santa Monica.

The issue is further complicated because the suit centers on the inability of the Pico neighborhood to get preferred candidates elected to the city council. However, the Pico neighborhood is not majority-Latino, meaning creating a Pico representative would not ensure Latinos are represented on the council. At best, district-based election of councilmembers would put a Pico District resident on the council who might be more in tune with the interests of his Latino neighbors.

Attendees also worried too much meddling with the districts in order to ensure a Latino majority could easily disguise gerrymandering, a problem Shankman said safeguards were in place to prevent.

The NOMA members, overwhelmingly white and well-educated, were interested in other possible benefits to the city from district voting. Shenkman claimed that districts would get officials "knocking on doors" and less reliant on big endorsements and outside money, which he said had happened following a similar reform in Palmdale. He believes a smaller pool of voters allows one on one conversation to be an effective campaign tactic while at the same time making mass advertisements less important.

The news website featured prominently in the debate because the site has taken a stance against Mr. Shenkman. Breitbart has implied that the series of California Voting Rights Act lawsuits are a divisive moneymaking ploy, but its opposition was taken as a badge of honor by Shenkman. In fact, supporters of the districting plan were quick to point out opponents' uncomfortable alignment with the conservative website.

Shenkman responded to the accusations in depth, saying that he'd grown up in Detroit and seen political problems he believed were exacerbated by poor representation of minorities. Shankman declared he was so passionate about voting rights he had mortgaged his home to provide funds for a previous lawsuit.

The case will focus on the controversy of Gleam Davis' Hispanic heritage, the voting records of the Pico neighborhood and Hispanics, but the actual desires of Santa Monica voters won't factor into the equation. The city of Santa Monica has twice voted to maintain its 'at large' election system following voter initiatives. If the council's electoral system is changed, it won't be by an act of democracy.


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