Unanimous California Supreme Court in Santa Monica Case Adopts Compromise Reading of California Voting Rights Act, Remands Case to Appeals Court for Further Proceedings

You can find the opinion here.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that proof of racially polarized voting in an at-large system was enough to show a violation of the CVRA. The court also rejected the City of Santa Monica’s argument (and a similar argument of the Court of Appeal) that required proof that it would be possible to draw a single-member district in which minority voters constituted a majority or near-majority of voters such that they could elect representatives of their choice.

Instead the court held:

Accordingly, to establish dilution of a protected class’s ability to elect its preferred candidate under the CVRA, a plaintiff must demonstrate “the potential to elect representatives” under some lawful alternative electoral method. (Gingles, supra, 478 U.S. at p. 50, fn. 17.) One way to emonstrate the class’s potential to elect its preferred candidates would be to show, as the VRA requires, that the class ould be “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district.” (Gingles, at p. 50.) But that is not the only way. (See Elec. Code, § 14028, subd. (c).) Because the CVRA applies exclusively to nonpartisan elections, where there may be more than two candidates, the winner may prevail with far less than a majority of the vote.

Moreover, the protected class may be able to demonstrate its ability to attract crossover votes for its preferred candidate. Finally, a plaintiff may identify nondistrict remedies that would enable the class, on its own or with the assistance of crossover votes, to elect its preferred candidate. The minority population percentage necessary to win an election under some alternative at-large electoral systems — cumulative or ranked-choice voting, for example — may be less than 25 percent. (See Dillard v. Chilton County Bd. of Education (M.D.Ala. 1988) 699 F.Supp. 870, 874 (Dillard) [“in a jurisdiction with seven seats, the threshold of exclusion[11] would be 12.5% plus” in a cumulative voting system]; Mulroy, The Way Out: A Legal Standard for Imposing Alternative Electoral Systems as Voting Rights Remedies (1998) 33 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L.Rev. 333, 342 [threshold for ranked-choice voting “is identical to that of cumulative voting”].) Determining whether the protected class has the potential to elect its preferred candidate under some alternative system requires a “ ‘functional’ analysis of the political process” in that locality and a “ ‘searching practical evaluation of the “past and present reality.” ’ ” (Gingles, supra, 478 U.S. at pp. 62–63.)

Courts should consider the totality of the facts and circumstances of the particular case (see, e.g., Elec. Code, § 14028, subd. (e)), including the characteristics of the specific locality, its electoral history, and “ ‘an intensely local appraisal of the design and impact’ of the contested electoral mechanisms” as well as the design and impact of the potential alternative system. (Gingles, at p. 79; see Milligan, supra, _ U.S. at p. _ [216 L.Ed.2d at p. 75].) This fact-specific inquiry accords with the legislative understanding that California is a large and diverse state that needs a flexible approach to address our changing demographics…

The key inquiry in establishing dilution of a protected class’s ability to elect its preferred candidate under the CVRA, therefore, is what percentage of the vote would be required to win — an inquiry that is not short-circuited merely because the protected class may fall short of an absolute majority (or something close to that). In predicting how many candidates are likely to run and what percentage may be necessary to win, courts may also consider the experiences of other similar jurisdictions that use district elections or other alternatives to traditional at-large elections. Courts should likewise keep in mind that the inquiry at the liability stage “is simply ‘to prove that a solution is possible, and not necessarily to present the final solution to the problem.’ ” (Pope v. County of Albany (2d Cir. 2012) 687 F.3d 565, 576; see Gingles, supra, 478 U.S. at p. 50, fn. 17.)

The court then remanded for the Court of Appeals to apply this new standard as well as reach other arguments it did not reach on the first round of appeals.

The bottom line for the CVRA: these cases are going to be somewhat harder to bring than plaintiffs would want, but much easier to win than cases under the federal Voting Rights Act.

As to what happens in Santa Monica ultimately, it is too early to say. But the potential for getting rid of the city’s at-large system still seems like a real possibility.

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