The way that Irvine residents elect their city council members could soon draw a strong challenge, with the goal of creating new voting districts for candidates vying to become elected officials.
Irvine officials were served with a legal notice telling them to convert to district elections or face a lawsuit last week, kicking off a discussion that could fundamentally change the playing field in future elections.
Currently, Irvine operates on an at large voting system, meaning voters get to vote on all the council’s available seats.
If approved, this new measure would divide the city into voting districts that would all be separate races based on residency, except for the mayoral race which would remain citywide.
The letter was sent by attorney Kevin Shenkman, who has been fighting similar lawsuits across California since 2012. Shenkman has sent similar letters all over Orange County in the past few years, prompting shifts to district voting in cities including Lake Forest, Anaheim, Orange, and Fullerton.
Proponents of district voting have pointed out the system helps promote political minority opinions and ensures council members are focused on hyper local issues, but others say the division would result in a council fighting exclusively for parts of the city and not the public interest as a whole.
In his letter, Shenkman claims the at large system has diluted the Latino and Asian community’s ability to have a voice on the council. Under the California Voting Rights Act, if Shenkman can prove that, he can force the city to switch to district elections to fix the problem.
So far, the public is in the dark on what the council majority thinks: most have chosen not to comment on it after the council discussed the issue in closed session at their meeting this past Tuesday.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim said while she supports district voting as a remedy to racially polarized voting, it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in Irvine.
“You’ve had people from protected classes winning elections not just once not just twice but many times,” Kim said. “I’m surprised he didn’t do this many years back when it was an all white city council…this isn’t to help marginalized communities, it’s to line his own pocketbooks which is fine. Go chase ambulances all you want.”
Irvine can fight the request in court, but a loss could cost the city millions in litigation fees. The city of Palmdale settled with Shenkman for $4.5 million in 2015 after three years of fighting the move to district elections.
Councilman Larry Agran and Mayor Farrah Khan declined to comment, but during a candidate forum this past October, Agran said he would support the move, while Khan said she was conflicted.
Councilmen Anthony Kuo and Mike Carroll did not return requests for comment Thursday morning, but Carroll also said he was conflicted on the issue at the October forum.
While the council was publicly mute on the issue, during public comment residents were largely supportive of the move, pointing out how Irvine’s development in village communities like Woodbridge and the Great Park made them a perfect candidate for district voting.
Whether or not it’s discussed in open session, Shenkman said he needs an answer by April 25 on whether the council will move forward voluntarily. Agran said he believes the city will meet that deadline with a response, but declined to say what that response would be.
The discussion on district voting also steps into the ongoing debate among Irvine residents over the council’s size. Irvine is the largest city in Orange County with only five council members, while the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach hold a standard council of seven.
According to data from the US Census Bureau, that means a council member in Anaheim would represent around 30,000 constituents while an Irvine council member represents almost twice as many, despite Anaheim holding over 60,000 more residents.
“Each of the four of you (not counting the mayor) are elected at large, usually with a paltry percentage of the votes cast & a body of five is too few to adequately represent a population of 300,000,” wrote commenter Joshua Moore.
Kim, who was elected just months ago in November, led the pack at 43,744 votes, an Irvine record, with just under 15% of the total votes cast. Carroll and Agran each picked up around 13% of the final vote, meaning nearly 60% of the overall votes went to losing candidates.
While no council members have called for a vote on the issue, Kim and Khan have both publicly said they’re in support of an expansion multiple times.
When asked at the October forum, Agran held up a red card stating he was against district voting, but in a recent call with Voice of OC he said he would support the move if it happened with district elections.
Ultimately, the decision to expand the council may be up to voters on the ballot according to Kim.
“The fact we have the same amount of city councilmembers in 2021 as we did when the city was incorporated 50 years ago…is ridiculous,” Kim said. “I’m trying to understand what the timeline is…but it looks like we may have to go to a vote.”