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Pico Residents To Demand Santa Monica Dump At-Large Voting

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By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

December 15, 2015 -- In what could be the first step leading to a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, Pico Neighborhood residents have scheduled a news conference Tuesday to denounce Santa Monica's at-large elections system and demand the City switch to district voting.

The residents, including Pico resident and local school board member Oscar de la Torre, claim their votes have been dilluted through at-large balloting in which only the top vote-getters get elected.

They plan to present a letter to the City Council demanding “a transition to district-based elections,” said Pico resident Maria Loya.

“Our City leaders have an opportunity to bring justice to one of our City’s darkest moments, where people of color were deliberately marginalized,” said De la Torre. “I hope that one day every resident and every neighborhood is represented in our government.”

Loya said Santa Monica is “a tale of two cities,” where residents of the Pico area in the southern part of the City face gang violence and other social problems residents in the City's wealthier sectors are never forced to endure.

“As a mother, former City Council candidate and resident of the Pico Neighborhood I want to ensure that future elections provide fairness,” said Loya, who ran for Council in 2004 but lost. “The current at-large election system has led to a lack of representation, which in turn has led to social neglect, environmental racism and marginalization.

“I love my City and it can be a better City by ending its discriminatory at-large election scheme.”

Residents are backing their claim of unfair elections with a 1992 study. According to their attorney, Kevin Shenkman, the study found that a decades-old plot has kept minorities from being elected to the Council.

“Making a defense more complicated for Santa Monica is the fact that a City commissioned study in 1992 determined the current at-large system was most likely devised in 1946 to deliberately disenfranchise minority voters, making the current at-large elections unconstitutional,” said Shenkman.

Recently several cities and school districts, including Santa Clarita and four school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley, have dumped their at-large elections after being threatened with lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

“In the face of a legal challenge where CVRA provisions have applied, no municipal government has succeeded in defending its at-large election system,” said Shenkman.

Critics of at-large elections say they give an advantage to candidates from the majority ethnic group. In at-large elections in which there are, say, two contested seats for City Council, the two candidates with the most votes win.

But residents of minority communities have claimed at large elections minimize the chances of electing candidates from their neighborhoods, because their votes are essentially spread out and included in the overall ballot count.

In Santa Monica, Pico Neighborhood residents say their inability to get a candidate from the area elected has led to many of the area's problems.

“Residents deserve equal representation, a stronger democracy and an electoral system that is fair,” said De La Torre.

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