Court rules in favor of neighborhood association in California Voting Rights Act case
The decision clarifies the parameters of the CVRA
On Aug. 24, 2023, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica (2023 WL 5440486), a case that has been ongoing since April 2016. The court’s decision did not end the case, but importantly, reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal and remanded the matter back for further consideration using a new standard to evaluate at-large voting systems for violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The Supreme Court held that there is no requirement that a protected class make up a majority, or close to majority, of a hypothetical district by being geographically compact or concentrated.

The CVRA is a 2001 California law that provides that “an at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.” (Elections Code 14027.) The CVRA is similar to the federal law, the Voting Rights Act (VRA), but has key distinctions that are meant to provide more protections for minority voters in California. For example, the CVRA applies only to at-large election systems, also referred to as a multi-member district, which operate by affording all voters an equal number of votes as there are open positions. Using those votes, voters elect all of the representatives that will serve on the council. In contrast, a single-member district system operates by dividing the represented area into districts with roughly equal populations and all voters in each district receive one vote for their one representative.

In 2016, the Pico Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica arguing that the city’s at-large election system used to elect the seven-member city council violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution and the CVRA. The association argued that the at-large system “unlawfully impaired the ability of Latino voters to elect their preferred candidates or, alternatively, to influence the outcome of council election.” (Pico, page 6.) The trial court agreed with the association and found that the at-large system led to a consistent pattern of racially polarized voting and unlawfully diluted the strength of Latino voters.

The Court of Appeal disagreed and found that there was no violation of the Constitution or the CVRA because Latino voters were not geographically compact or concentrated enough to be successful in any district created by the city, an analysis that is part of the Gingles standard used in analyzing federal claims under the VRA. (Thornburg v. Gingles (1986) 478 U.S. 30.) The appeals court did not consider if there was racially polarized voting, and there was no separate analysis for the Latino voters’ ability to influence the outcome of an election because, according to the court, that could not be done apart from a group’s ability to elect its preferred candidate.

A woman voting
The California Supreme Court only considered the CVRA claim and disagreed with the Court of Appeal, specifically stating that it had “misconstrued the CVRA.” (Pico, page 4.) However, the Supreme Court “express[ed] no view on the ultimate question of whether the city’s at-large voting system is consistent with the CVRA.” (Pico, page 32) Instead, the court remanded that issue back for the Court of Appeal’s consideration based on the newly defined state standard for determining when a CVRA violation has occurred. The court focused on the legislative intent for the CVRA and the distinctions between it and the VRA to determine how the CVRA’s bar on the use of an at-large method of election is applied. The CVRA, the court said, was drafted to address the “perceived inadequacies” (Pico, page 10) of the VRA and affords greater potential impact for plaintiffs by eliminating the geographically compact or concentrated precondition requirements for a plaintiff to be successful under the VRA and by addressing not only the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice, but also to influence the outcome of elections.

Contrary to the Court of Appeal’s decision, which relied on a case related to the VRA, the Supreme Court held that there is no requirement that a protected class make up a majority, or close to majority, of a hypothetical district by being geographically compact or concentrated. Instead, courts should consider dilution and then evaluate if a protected class has been denied the potential of electing a preferred candidate or influencing an election. As part of the showing of dilution, the court held that a plaintiff need only identify an alternative electoral system, such as ranked choice, limited choice or cumulative voting, to serve as the “benchmark undiluted voting system.” (Pico, page 32.)

The court also stated that “a protected class has the ability to elect its preferred candidate if it would have the potential to elect that candidate on its own or with the assistance of crossover support using that identified alternative system.” (Pico, page 32.) Finally, the Supreme Court instructed that in considering dilution, courts should evaluate the totality of the circumstances. This includes characteristics of the specific locality, its electoral history and “[i]n predicting how many candidates are likely to run and what percentage may be necessary to win,” courts can consider similar jurisdictions that use alternative election methods. (Pico, page 32.)

The case will now return to the Court of Appeal where it will be evaluated with the new standard issued by the California Supreme Court. The next decision by the Court of Appeal could be appealed back to the Supreme Court that in this ruling favored voter plaintiffs.