The California Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments this week in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica, a case that challenges whether at-large local elections are discriminatory. U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, California’s former election chief, says the case could weaken civil rights protections if Santa Monica prevails.
Throughout my public service career, I’ve been guided by the principle that our democracy works best when as many eligible Americans as possible participate. That’s particularly important in a state as big and diverse as California.
For two decades, the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA, has strengthened our democracy by helping ensure that historically disadvantaged communities have a fair opportunity to elect their preferred candidates without having their collective voting power diluted. The law established criteria for when local jurisdictions must replace at-large elections – which have been shown to disadvantage minority voters – with individual district elections. The success of the California law has served as a model for states that have passed similar voting rights laws.
Unfortunately, that progress is at risk as the California Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Pico Neighborhood Association v. City of Santa Monica this week, a case that threatens to seriously erode the California Voting Rights Act.
That should worry every Californian.
In 2001, we celebrated the passage of the CVRA because it brought us closer to the more equal democracy envisioned during the civil rights movement. The marches and protests led by icons like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis didn’t stop with the stroke of President Lyndon Johnson’s pen when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They were fueled by the understanding that America’s democracy is imperfect, and that it’s each generation’s job to bring us closer to that “more perfect Union.”
California’s voting rights law was an important step in that long march – protecting minority voters from effectively being silenced by “at-large elections” that dilute their voting power.
But since its passage, we’ve seen the federal voting protections undermined. We’ve also seen Americans’ access to the ballot attacked by Republican-led state legislatures across the country.
This month marked 10 years since a conservative majority of the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the federal Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling overturned 50 years of precedent that had prevented state and local governments from discriminating against voters of color.
And in the time since, Republican legislatures in states across the country have enacted laws that make it more difficult for Americans to vote, to stay registered to vote, or to cast their ballot.
These threats to our democracy fueled me during my tenure as California Secretary of State. As the chief election officer, I worked to establish automatic and same-day voter registration, to upgrade California’s voting systems to meet higher security standards, and to expand mail-in and in-person early voting. That’s part of the reason why there are now 22 million Californians registered to vote – a record high.
California took a stand because our fundamental right to vote and have a fair say in the outcome of an election is worth fighting for. As voters across the country can no longer rely on the federal government to uphold these protections, California’s voting rights laws are even more important.
Those laws are in danger in Pico Neighborhood Association v. Santa Monica, a case that centers on the accusation that the city’s at-large election system dilutes Latino voting power. If the city of Santa Monica prevails, the CVRA’s protections against discriminatory at-large elections would be drastically weakened.
In other words, if the city has its way, California would be set back 20 years.
In 2020, I wrote to the California Supreme Court in support of the Pico Neighborhood Association, and proudly stood with community members, civil rights organizations and elected officials – including the Latino, African American, and Asian and Pacific Islander state legislative caucuses.
That’s why I’m speaking out again today. Our democracy is too important, and California’s leadership too vital, for any of us not to participate.