By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – A recent letter to the Enterprise by Matt Williams backed up the opinion that Davis should rescind its district elections and return to at-large voting.
Williams argues, “There is nothing to prevent the Council from taking the necessary first steps toward a Council Ordinance rescinding the prior decision that put District elections in place. The city’s lawyers will no doubt counsel with an abundance of caution, fearing a lawsuit, but I am of the opinion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
While I largely agree that we need to have a plan to return to at-large voting rather than district elections, I don’t think the time is quite upon us just yet.
For one thing, Williams notes, “With the recent Santa Monica case on the books, the chances of a judgment for court costs and legal fees is severely reduced, and that means any lawsuit would be very costly to the plaintiff.”
He adds, “Given Santa Monica, the plaintiff might even find themselves (if they lose the case) facing a judgment to pay the city’s court costs and legal fees. That makes the decision to sue much, much, less attractive.”
But that’s not quite true—at least just yet.
One June 27, the lawsuit Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica was heard by the California Supreme Court. That means that by the end of the calendar year, we will have a decision in this case.
It doesn’t really make any sense for the city of Davis to do anything until after the court rules. If the court rules in favor of the city of Santa Monica—and that is probably the most likely outcome as I will explain shortly—that gives the city a binding precedent with which to act to reverse the districts and return to at-large voting.
At that point we wouldn’t even need to speculate as to whether former Supervisor Matt Rexroad would file a lawsuit—he most likely would not.
On other hand, should the court defy expectations at this point—there would be a binding precedent the other way which would negate any speculation about the merits of the case and force the presumption back to the calculation that the plaintiffs would likely prevail.
That was the initial calculation by the city—they felt that any litigation would be lengthy and costly and was unlikely to prevail. But Santa Monica has done us all a favor by engaging in that long and tortuous road in our stead.
The initial court had found that the Plaintiffs in the case had proved “that racially polarized voting had plagued Defendant’s at-large city council elections for at least the last quarter century, leading to a dilution of the Latino vote.”
But subsequent court rulings have reversed that initial victory.
Of particular note is the opinion of the AG’s office, which while declining to weigh in on one side or the other, issued an amicus that is suggestive of the way forward.
In particular, this case presents “the first opportunity for the Court to interpret this important statute and its ‘vote dilution’ standard.”
In the AG’s opinion, “To establish vote dilution under the CVRA [California Voting Rights Act], there must be a showing that an at-large electoral system in particular has precluded a protected class from exercising the power it would otherwise have to meaningfully influence the outcome of elections if the at-large system had not been adopted.”
The AG argues that in order to meet this standard, the plaintiffs don’t need to show that a district could be drawn that is effectively majority-minority, nor must it show that it would have a near-majority of residents in the protected class, instead, they only need to show that “an at-large electoral system is responsible for the protected class’s lack of electoral influence based on a totality of the circumstances and the specific facts of the particular case.”
The question is whether the Supreme Court will adopt that standard—because the AG’s opinion is not binding on the court in any way.
But it seems reasonable and, if they do, it appears that Davis would be in a very strong position to reverse its decision to create districts and reinstate at-large voting.
Along these lines, an amicus filed by, among others, The League of Women Voters of Santa Monica, the Alliance of Santa Monica Latino and Black Voters, the Human Relations Council Santa Monica Bay Area, and Community for Excellent Public Schools sides with the city of Santa Monica.
They share the opinion that “Santa Monica’s Latino and Black voters have greater voting power and influence under the City’s at-large election system than they would have under a district elections system, as evidenced by the success of Latino and Black voters in electing the candidates of their choice, including Latino and Black candidates.”
I think that’s probably true of Davis as well, given that there are no enclaves of people of color in the city of Davis that get diluted in at-large elections.
Given that, and given that no district even gets to 40 percent minority voters under the district system, the winner-takes-all approach of the current system actually forces any candidate to win the most votes, making it more difficult not less difficult for minority candidates to win office.
Although it is worth noting that in the 2022 election, both candidates of color prevailed in their elections—one of them against an incumbent.
Still, I think the demographics and distribution in Davis are such that if the city of Santa Monica prevails, the city of Davis would reasonably expect to as well—and it is unlikely that under such conditions someone would attempt to sue the city, much less expect to be successful.
But, there seems to be absolutely no percentage to jumping the gun here. The city ought to wait for the decision.
While I think districts are suboptimal, they are hardly a travesty to democracy. I simply believe that districts in Davis did not increase the voting power of minorities or even students, and thus serve no benefit that overrides their detrimental effects.