A southern California lawyer is trying to change how people in the Golden State are voting in local elections, and he's doing it with the threat of lawsuits.
Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes sues (or threatens to sue) cites based on their voting practices; if they're a city that shows racial polarization in their voting, he can sue on the basis that minority voters are not getting a fair say in local elections.
Beginning in 2012, he began sending letters to cities who did not comply with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The bill essentially allows minority voters to argue that they're at a disadvantage due to at-large elections and racially polarized voting.
Racially polarized voting, according to Shenkman, occurs when minority voters cohesively vote for one type of candidate, and majority voters cohesively vote for another. When that happens, the majority voter population will win every time because of sheer numbers in an at-large election, because at-large elections allow all voters to vote for all members of a city council.
Shenkman's solution to this problem is voting districts; he says splitting cities into districts brings better representation when it comes to minority voters, giving them more of a voice.
If he sees a city he believes has racially polarized voting, his first step is to send a warning letter, asking them to change. If they don't, he will threaten to sue. If they still don't change, he will take them to court.
So far, two cases have gone to court: Palmdale and Highland. Palmdale was the first case of its kind; the city attempted to fight Shenkman on the issue, but they lost (and spent over $7 million on legal fees in the process). Palmdale held their first district based city council election in 2016; they elected their first Democratic Latino that year, and the second Latino in their elected history.
Shenkman operates out of Malibu, but his fingerprints can be seen all over the state. He says they've sent upwards of 100 warning letters to everything from water districts to community college districts. He says between 30 and 40 cities have received letters.
Two of those cities are in Kern County: Tehachapi and Taft. Tehachapi has decided to adopt voting districts to avoid a lawsuit from Shenkman, but not everyone is happy with the decision.
Peter Graff, a nearly 40-year Tehachapi resident, says Tehachapi citizens were not given proper notification or choice when it comes to adopting the districts. He's been working on a petition to get the matter on a ballot to allow the people to decide. His initial petition, which garnered hundreds of signatures, was rejected by the city because it did not meet standards. He says he plans to attend council meetings to get the matter put to a vote.
Meanwhile, Shenkman says Taft is yet to respond to his letter, which was sent last year. This leaves the door open for a potential lawsuit against the city, but Shenkman did not give a definitive time frame for when that could happen.
Shenkman's cases begin when an individual from the area reaches out to him, or when an organization does. In the case of Tehachapi, both an individual and an organization were represented.
Shenkman says he does not reveal the names of his plaintiffs due to safety concerns. 23 ABC made numerous attempts to talk with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project about the issue, but those attempts were unsuccessful.
Tehachapi's new districts are set to be adopted ahead of their upcoming November elections, when three of the five city council members will be vacating their seats.