Aficionados of politics await redistricting numbers

For some, the last week of the year is a time to kick back and relax. For the political junkies who specialize in redistricting, it’s a time of high drama. This year, especially.

“It’s always contentious and fun guys like me live for it,” noted Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

On or before midnight on Dec. 31, the U.S. Census bureau will release its latest estimates of the nation’s population. The figures will give political cartographers across the country an indication of the raw material they will need to draw the political boundaries in their states. “You’ll probably be enjoying the holidays when I’m putting out those numbers,” said Kimball Brace of the Virginia-based Election Data Services, a national consulting firm.

In California, as across the country, the latest numbers are critical. They also reflect a moving target, as population estimates shift from state to state as the movement of people is tracked. That’s what makes the 2009 numbers so interesting to political demographers: They offer a look at the potential congressional shifts as the census gets under way.

The census, the actual nose count, begins the following spring. The goal is get a count of people, a snapshot in time, as of April 1, 2010. Questionnaires will be mailed to 150 million domestic households, canvassers will follow-up, military personnel will be contacted, U.S. residents from Aidan to Zanzibar will be included. By New Year’s Eve 2010, the figures will go to the president.
Eight states expected to lose seats – Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Five states likely will gain one seat each – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Utah – and Texas may get three, possibly four. “Overall, the (December) 2008 estimates show that eight congressional seats in 14 states have already changed hands at this point in the decade,” notes Kimball’s analysis.

Nobody knows for sure what their impact will be on California redistricting, but at least two possibilities already are emerging.
The first is the potential for a reduction in the state’s congressional delegation, from 53 to 52, based on a projection by Election Data Services that use 2008 population estimates. Under this projection, California would be one of 10 states that would lose seats; Ohio would lose two. Two other projections, one long-term and the other short-term, showed the state’s congressional seats unchanged. As populations shift, they carry their political clout with them.

“There are only 435 seats to hand out (in the House),” Brace said, “and it is that restriction to 435 that causes us to make the changes.” EDS is a Virginia-based political consulting firm that specializes in the redistricting and the census. Brace has been crunching political numbers for three decades.

“There has been a lot going on in your state,” Brace added. “You were ahead of the nation in the foreclosure mess. The  slowdown of the economy hit the rest of the nation in the fall of 2008, but it seems to have hit California before that. The question is this: How much of that earlier part of the decade continued through the remainder of the decade? That’s where the issue is right now. It’s extremely important to California, because the answer to that question will determine whether you lose a seat or stay the same. It’s that close.”

If California loses a seat, a big “if,” experts inside California say, it would mark the first time in the state’s history that it has lost a congressional seat. The potential loss doesn’t stem from a loss of state population – that’s actually growing – but from the fact that other states are growing faster.

“It’s just something that right now no one knows,” said political historian Tony Quinn, a co-author of the Target Book, which handicaps legislative and congressional political campaigns.

“We grew in the ‘90s and got one seat, and we got five seats in the ‘80s. I think our growth during the decade will be about average. It may be falling because of hard times, but it will still be several million people, so it is hard to see us losing a seat.”

The second is the possibility of an increasing number of Latinos in Los Angeles-area congressional districts currently held by African Americans.

“As far as partisan change goes, most seats will remain in Democratic hands, although in the L.A. area, the question is the growth of the Latino population in districts that are African American. There is no chance those seats will go Republican, but the question is whether there would be real primaries,” Pitney said.

Over the last decade, the surge in Latino power has been evident at all levels of California government. In the Legislature, 27 lawmakers are members of the Latino Caucus, or nearly 23 percent of the total.

In Congress, the story is different. Currently, there are eight Latinos in California’s 53-member delegation, which has 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

During the 1990s, Latino power surged in California and the 2000 figures reflected the changes. But some congressional districts were drawn to protect non-Latino incumbents.

For example, Rep. Howard Berman’s 28th Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley, which is now half Latino, was redrawn to protect Berman by cutting Latino voter registration to 28 percent – a move that drew court challenges from Latino rights groups.

Berman may likely face a similar challenge in the looming redistricting, as Latinos push into the Valley. “Nearly all of the overlapping Los Angeles City Council districts and state legislative districts are currently occupied by a Latino,” according to the Target Book. An exception is Bob Blumenfield in the  40th Assembly District, which includes Canoga Park and Van Nuys.

Rep. Maxine Water’s solidly Democratic 35th Congressional District, which includes Gardena, Hawthorne, and parts of South Central, was once solidly African American but is now half Latino. But in voter registration, African Americans have a 2-to-1 edge over Latinos. Waters is assured an easy reelection next year.

Similarly, Rep. Diane Watson’s 33rd C.D. is two-thirds Democratic but has a growing Latino population. African Americans outnumber Latinos in registration better than 2-1, however, although Latinos outnumber African Americans in the diverse district, 35 percent to 31 percent. Rep. Laura Richardson’s district, the 37th C.D. at Long Beach, has significant Latino representation but Richardson should have little difficulty getting re-elected.

Congressional districts will be drawn this time, as they were a decade ago, by the Legislature. Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts, however, will be drawn by an independent commission, as approved by voters in last year’s Proposition 11.

One danger in the census is that some communities will be undercounted – the low income, the homeless and some minorities, for example.

“You want to make sure you don’t have an undercount,” said Bob Heath, an Austin, Texas, attorney and an expert on redistricting, “which more frequently occurs in minority communities. You’ll always have an overcount, where some people get counted twice. But immigrant populations, non-citizen populations, those are harder to count.”

“There’s always an issue in Utah how you count people who are residents but are out of the country in non-government
positions, the (Morman Church) missionaries. Utah claimed it lost a congressional seat because the missionaries weren’t counted.” In the last redistricting, Utah missed getting a fourth congressional seat by 800 people. Next year’s census may be different: An amendment before Congress would require the State Department and the Census Bureau to coordinate data involving the passports of out-of-country Americans to help in the count. If ultimately approved, Utah could wind up with another congressional seat.

An earlier effort backed largely by Democrats to conduct “sampling” in the census has been rejected by the courts. But however the count is handled, the task of counting an estimated 307 million people is extraordinarily difficult.

“It’s going to be a monster, mailing to everybody with a mailbox, then following up; having to count people in prison, people in hospitals, people in the ships at sea. It’s a huge job,” Quinn said.

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