A report in the San Francisco Chronicle Thursday confirmed what Breitbart News reported in 2017: that a small group of lawyers is making millions by suing city councils for alleged racism in their voting systems, though most claims are totally without merit.
The lawsuits allege that under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA), a system of at-large voting, where voters choose from a city-wide list of candidates, is inherently more racist than a system of district voting that separates local geographic areas.
A small group of lawyers, led by Kevin Shenkman of Malibu, has made a living out of suing cities, including liberal ones, accusing them of racism, and threatening to sue if they do not change their voting systems and pay the lawyers a hefty fee to avoid court.
Breitbart News profiled Shenkman in 2017, in an article titled “Ending Democracy as We Know It in California.” Other outlets followed suit. The latest profile is in the Chronicle, which notes that forcing cities to change their voting systems often makes councils “as white as they were before or sometimes whiter.” The Chronicle also laments that the district system has reinforced NIMBYism against housing projects, and has made it possible, in some cities, for Christian evangelicals and other hard-right candidates to “take over school boards and pass policies that [allegedly] restrict LGBTQ+ rights and ban books about race.”
Some Republicans have welcomed the changes, with California Republican National Committeman Shawn Steel telling the Chronicle in a separate article that district elections have helped conservatives win — not something the CVRA’s supporters intended.
“[P]olarizing candidates who would struggle to win a citywide election can sometimes more easily succeed in districts, because a relatively small number of votes can make the difference,” the Chronicle notes, especially in elections for school boards.
The Chronicle notes that Shenkman has sent “boilerplate” letters to local communities all over California, even fire departments, hoping to collect the $30,000 fee he demands by threatening to sue. It is a form of legalized bullying, or even extortion.
The Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District received one of his letters; Shenkman agreed to lower his fee by $5,000 after a fire crew happened to save Shenkman’s home from a wildfire in 2018. The fire district duly changed from at-large to district elections.
Most cities simply comply with Shenkman’s demand. A few resist: the City of Santa Monica, one of the most liberal in the country, has been fighting Shenkman for years. His lawsuit has embittered local politics with its accusation that its voting system is racist.
(Ironically, Shenkman’s own community of Malibu, one of the wealthiest communities in America, has a at-large voting system.)
Of 45 councils the Chronicle studied, 22 became more diverse after being threatened with lawsuits; 23 did not, and seven became “whiter.” Some local officials described the entire effort as a shakedown or a “scam.” The CVRA is also flawed: it assumes that residents are segregated and that districts will allow minority representation. But California towns are often too integrated to allow for the racial gerrymandering that goes on in other states — and that lawsuits by Shenkman and others often encourage.
Money spent responding to Shenkman’s letters — even without lawsuits — cannot be spent on other, urgent local priorities.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the new biography, Rhoda: ‘Comrade Kadalie, You Are Out of Order’. He is also the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.