PD Editorial: Turning the tables on election lawsuits

Facing the prospect of costly litigation, dozens of California cities and school districts switched to district elections in recent years. A civil rights group, represented by a Malibu law firm, accused them of violating the California Voting Rights Act. Fighting a lawsuit could cost millions, but the law’s “safe harbor” provision capped defendants’ costs at $30,000 if they switched without a fight. Most potential defendants have capitulated, including the cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor and Rohnert Park.

Santa Monica decided to fight. After losing at the trial level, the Los Angeles County city prevailed in appeals court with a unanimous ruling last week that its at-large election system hasn’t diluted the influence of Latino voters. As we’ve said before, district elections make sense for large cities. But many of the recent changes were driven by the fear of legal costs rather than evidence of electoral discrimination.

The Santa Monica decision might prompt more cities and school districts to fight, but the best outcome would be for state lawmakers to fix the law. They should limit enforcement to the state Justice Department or require private plaintiffs to prove there is an opportunity to draw one or more districts with a concentration of minority voters.

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