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Voice of the Year: Kevin Shenkman

Oceanside, Poway and Encinitas are among the cities that have changed their election processes this year or are in the midst of switching to district elections. / Photos via Shutterstock and Jamie Scott Lytle

Kevin Shenkman lives in Malibu, but the attorney might have done more to shape the political landscape of North County than anyone in recent memory.

Shenkman has used the California Voting Rights Act to sue dozens of cities across the state in which the makeup of elected representation is at odds with local demographics – places, for example, that are home to large numbers of Latinos, but where the city councils are almost entirely white.

So far, he hasn’t lost a case. Rather than waste millions of taxpayer dollars in court – millions that go to Shenkman – most cities simply agree to change the way council members are elected.

That was the case this year in at least five North County cities – Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, Encinitas and Poway. Those changes prompted a former Poway mayor [1], backed by a conservative D.C. think tank, to file a lawsuit challenging the California Voting Rights Act. A hearing is set for January.

Of course, not everyone appreciates the implication that at-large, or citywide, elections are intended to silence minority voices. Nor does everyone want to attribute their loss to racism.

In Oceanside, for instance, Shenkman demanded change by citing Linda Gonzales’ failed bid for City Council in 2016. The problem: Gonzales believes she lost fair and square [2].

That said, district elections have the potential to do good things for all residents. In theory, a smaller pool of voters should make for more responsive politicians. And because those politicians would be forced to cover less ground during the campaign, they’d need to raise less money.

The results, though, have been mixed. Only seven of the 22 cities that had been forced to adopt district-based elections by 2017 had seen an overall gain [3] in Latino council members. One report cited historically low turnout and a shortage of candidates willing to run.

Shenkman’s defenders have argued that the fruits of their legal labor will be revealed in time.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of small California cities with at-large electoral systems, and Shenkman said he has his sights on others locally.

“In northern San Diego County, I think we’ve had great success,” he said. “We’ll keep doing what we do.”

This is part of our Voice of the Year package [4], profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego in 2017.