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Irvine could be headed to court to defend their elections this year after announcing they won’t voluntarily convert to district elections. 

The threatened lawsuit came from Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer who’s been waging similar fights across the state for nearly a decade. Similar letters have been sent to the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange and others, who have all complied and changed to districts. 

Currently, the city council is elected “at large,” meaning every council candidate has to campaign to the city’s 150,000 voters independently. 

Under the California Voting Rights Act, if Shenkman can prove the city suffers from “racially polarized voting,” the city would be compelled to switch to district voting, meaning every office aside from the mayor would cater exclusively to one part of the city. 

In the city’s response, city attorney Jeff Melching claimed district elections are a solution without a problem in Irvine.   

“It is one thing to order a city to draw districts along race-based lines when doing so will give a protected class electoral strength it never had before. It is quite another to order a city to engage in such race-conscious line-drawing when it will achieve no purpose,” Melching wrote. “Forcing the most integrated big city in the country to draw race-based districts would be a huge step backwards.”

When asked by Voice of OC, Shenkman said he had not yet seen a copy of the city’s response, but said the council’s argument that the city is wholly integrated were irrelevant. 

“The city of Palmdale argued they’re the most integrated city in the country,” Shenkman said, referencing his suit against the city. “It didn’t do any good.”

To read Shenkman’s letter to the city and Melching’s full response, click here

Councilwoman Tammy Kim has been the council’s loudest opponent of district elections, calling Shenkman’s suit “ambulance chasing,” and pointing to her own success in the 2020 election as evidence that minorities are not oppressed voices. 

Councilman Anthony Kuo also spoke out against moving to districts, saying it wasn’t needed. 

“If you look at the makeup of the city council, we literally come from different parts of town,” Kuo said. “He’s looking for this solution that really doesn’t apply to one of America’s most interracially integrated communities.”

Councilman Larry Agran also said he agreed with the city’s decision to fight Shenkman’s lawsuit, echoing arguments the city was too integrated for districts to impact the issue of race. 

Mayor Farrah Khan declined to comment for this article, citing the council’s Tuesday night meeting taking up her schedule. Councilman Mike Carroll did not respond to requests for comment. 

While the council is opposing the move to districts, public commenters have voiced support for the idea, with some residents pointing out Irvine’s development in villages including Woodbridge and the Great Park makes them a perfect model for districts. 

Others have criticized that idea, saying the shift to districts encourages council members to focus exclusively on their constituents and not the broader public interest. 

“Putting aside the law and race entirely…the city of Irvine is over 200,000 people. To have at large elections in a city that size is insane,” Shenkman said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “They’re exceptionally costly to campaign to that size of an electorate. There are clearly areas of Irvine that have either never been represented or at least not that I can find.”

Agran agreed with Shenkman’s thoughts on implementing districts, pointing out how the city’s size made it harder for voters to connect with their representatives. 

“All geographic areas of the city then are equally represented,” Agran said. “You have elected council members who are closer to the people that elected him or her, and that seems to be the trend from one end of the state to the other.”  

According to data from the OC Registrar of Voters’ office, nearly 60% of the vote in Irvine’s last election went toward losing candidates. Councilwoman Kim, who set a new record in the city with over 40,000 votes, received just under 15% of the total vote.

Data like that has also led some to call for an expansion of the council, increasing from five to seven or even nine seats. Kim and Khan have publicly supported the expansion, while Carroll has said he’s conflicted. In a phone call with Voice of OC last week, Agran said he would only support an expansion if it came with district elections. 

Kuo commented on the issue for the first time this week, saying he wasn’t opposed to expanding the council’s size but had yet to see a convincing argument in favor of it. 

They’re people who aren’t happy with the council at all. When someone says I don’t feel represented, it means they don’t like their representative,” Kuo said, referencing those asking to expand the council. “They’re just looking for sort of what they want when they want it.” 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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