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California’s high court upholds voting rights law

A voter casts their ballot at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 7, 2022.
Rahul Lal
A voter casts their ballot at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 7, 2022.

It was a case that some said threatened to erode California’s voting rights law. But after a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday, some of its protections are reaffirmed, for now.

The case, filed by the Pico Neighborhood Association and others in 2016, alleged that Santa Monica’s at-large voting system for city council violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of the Latino community, which at the time made up 14% of its voting-age population. Instead of council members being elected citywide, the plaintiffs want the city divided into districts, and voters in each one to pick their representative.

In February 2019, a trial court ruled in the association’s favor and ordered the city to switch to district-based voting. But in July 2020, a state appeals court reversed that decision.

On Thursday, California’s high court unanimously ruled that was a mistake — that the appeals court had “misconstrued” the California Voting Rights Act. Justice Kelli Evans, writing for the six other justices, said that plaintiffs only have to prove racially polarized voting in an at-large system — not that minority voters would make up a majority or near-majority of a hypothetical district.

  • Pico Neighborhood Association, in a statement: “The at-large election system in Santa Monica has marginalized the Pico Neighborhood and its diverse residents for far too long.”

While U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla of California supported the association, the League of California Cities and the Special Districts Association filed briefs backing the city. So did a coalition including the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica and the Alliance of Santa Monica Latino and Black Voters, arguing that the city has “achieved significant success in ensuring voting power for Latino and Black voters” under the at-large system

The case now goes back to the appeals court for further consideration. The city of Santa Monica said it was “reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion and working to assess the path forward.” The association urged city officials to “settle the case quickly” and not spend taxpayer money on more litigation that “would be much better spent addressing the city’s many public safety and community services needs.”

Under the 2001 state voting rights act, minority groups gained greater leverage to challenge at-large elections that might dilute their voting power. At least 185 cities and nearly 400 other California jurisdictions have switched to district-based elections, according to the League of California Cities.

  • Kevin Shenkman, who represented the association and has filed dozens of lawsuits against cities regarding at-large elections: “There are some places that were waiting to see what the California Supreme Court would do and what they would say in this Santa Monica case, and so now they will have those answers.”

The affirmation of the state’s law is in contrast to court rulings on the federal Voting Rights Act — which have weakened protections over the last ten years.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Sameea Kamal is a reporter at CalMatters covering the state Capitol and California politics. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist of Color fellows, and previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.