IRVINE, Calif. — The City of Irvine has a choice to make, and if a recent legal missive is to be believed, it has until Sunday.

Malibu lawyer Kevin Shenkman has submitted a letter asking the city to switch from an at-large election model to district voting. He contends that without separate voting districts, the elections have an inherent racial bias, a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

“Yes, district elections are better than at-large elections for reasons completely separate from race,” Shenkman said. “That’s my personal view, not the law.”

What You Need To Know

  • The Irvine City Council discussed in a closed session whether to switch to voting districts

  • The conversation was forced by a letter submitted by Kevin Shenkman threatening a lawsuit should the city not decide to change its election process

  • Advocates of voting districts say they allow candidates with little money or influence to compete with big money campaigns

  • One critic called Shenkman's lawsuit "legalized extortion"

At-large elections allow every registered voter to cast a ballot for every open seat on the city council. Shenkman and other critics said this harms the pockets of like-minded constituencies in the city who may not have representation living in their area and understanding their concerns.

Shenkman pointed to UC, Irvine and the large number of college-aged students there who he believes have not been properly represented on the city council.

Shenkman has issued at least 100 letters and lawsuits in California pushing school boards, water districts and cities into district voting. If they acquiesce to his letter, he said he makes no money.

“I’m fine with that,” he said.

Neighboring cities like Newport Beach and Costa Mesa have already switched to districts.

What he’s hoping to start with Irvine’s politicians is a dialogue. So far, it’s unclear whether the majority of the city council is willing to talk.

Skeptics remain. 

“It’s very simple – he’s motivated by money,” said Adam Probolsky, a pollster and owner of Probolsky Research. “It’s a form of legalized extortion.”

If Irvine refuses, it could be in for an expensive legal fight. His firm, Shenkman & Hughes, and other law practices that joined him, forced the city of Palmdale into a roughly $4.5 million settlement. 

Shenkman said he often gets paid by going after the cities for legal expenses. 

Irvine’s diverse population is dispersed throughout the city, Probolsky said. Shenkman had not yet drilled down into the demographics of the city, but he reiterated that districts would be more fair.

Whether districts are more fair than at-large elections is disputed. One school of thought argues that any given voting district is protected from the influence of big money because it narrows the number of households per candidate. Fewer households means fewer doors to knock on, so a candidate with little or no campaign could have a better chance.

Probolsky doesn’t see it that way.

“Don’t be so excited about small universe elections because you think grandma is going to have an easier time getting elected,” Probolsky said. “Well, grandma is going to get run over by a political tractor trailer.”