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The latest addition to the East Palo Alto City Council won his seat by just 69 votes. And now, Antonio Lopez has won a case brought against him after the court found that he did not violate election laws with a taco giveaway near a vote center.

Lopez beat candidate Webster Lincoln for the third and final seat on the City Council in the Nov. 3 election. Following the certified election results in December, Lincoln contested the outcome and filed suit against Lopez with the San Mateo County Superior Court, accusing him of electioneering, defined in state law as a visible display or audible dissemination of information that advocates for or against a candidate within 100 feet of a vote center. Lincoln claimed that Lopez gave away free tacos as an incentive for votes.

Antonio Lopez. (Photo courtesy city of East Palo Alto)

Superior Court Judge Danny Chou ruled in favor of Lopez this month as the court found that Lopez did not violate election laws.

In the wake of his court victory, Lopez said he wanted to move forward and focus on his council duties. He encouraged Lincoln to work with him so they could put the case behind them.

“I hold great optimism that now that the facts of this case have been meticulously parsed out by the court, we can roll up our sleeves and work together in celebration and in solidarity of all the colors and creeds that constitute our community,” Lopez said. “Let’s put this behind us.”

On Election Day, Lopez and other candidates campaigned outside St. Francis of Assisi Church, one of three vote centers in East Palo Alto. The candidates campaigned in an area marked by elections officials, which was within 100 feet of a ballot drop box. Lopez also hired a taco truck to provide free tacos at the church.

In its decision, the court stated that the tacos were not given in exchange for votes as there was “nothing on or near the taco truck indicating any connection to Lopez.” Though Lopez and other candidates had campaigned within 100 feet of the drop box, they were following directions from elections officials and moved to a farther location following a complaint about potential electioneering. Moreover, the court found that “election fraud is far less of a concern at a secure drop box because the voter is simply returning a completed ballot.”

“What I despise most about this case is the damage it did to our city’s reputation. In a time where all the headlines should have been about the (COVID-19 pandemic) …, we talked about a taco truck.”

Antonio Lopez

Lopez said it was offensive to believe that the community would sell their beliefs for tacos.

“What I despise most about this case is the damage it did to our city’s reputation. In a time where all the headlines should have been about the enormous disparities in infection rates, in securing more funding for more testing, in advocating for a more equitable vaccine distribution as swiftly as possible, we talked about a taco truck,” Lopez said. “For months we looked like a city too busy pulling itself down to advocate for itself.”

Ann Ravel, the lawyer who represented Lopez pro bono, said that in her eyes the case was an attempt by a more powerful candidate to intimidate Lopez.

‘Weaponized’ courts

“Unfortunately, the courts are being used to weaponize our elections in an attempt to undo the will of the people,” Ravel said.

Lopez said that the case also stoked existing racial tensions in the community. Ravel said there was racial bias in the trial and in how people responded to the case on social media.

Ravel added that some of Lincoln’s witnesses were not present at the church and had no personal knowledge of the incident.

“What they knew was what they believed and what they believed was extremely angry, extremely negative and much of it was clearly anti-Latino,” Ravel said. “I think that that part of the trial was maybe the most disconcerting part and I’m sure it was also for Antonio because he truly is someone who uses his role in the community to try to bring people together.”

Lincoln was not immediately available for comment.

East Palo Alto City Clerk Walfred Solorzano, who served as the city’s chief elections official and was also a defendant in the case, said he was glad that the case was settled and commended county officials for mitigating issues on Election Day.

“I’m very happy that the integrity of the elections was upheld. It showed that the will of the people and voter turnout and using that right to vote is really the most important way of deciding who your leaders of the community are, instead of going to the courts,” Solorzano said.

The court is expected to issue a final statement by March 24. Court documents are available online. Enter case number 20-CIV-05468 in the search field.