California’s decennial battle to redraw the state’s political boundaries has moved into uncharted territory, a casualty of the pandemic and unprecedented delays in the release of census data.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that its data – the foundation of political map-making — will be released to all states this year by Sept. 30, a full six months later than the original release date. That means the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, or CRC – an independent body established by voters — will have less time to craft maps for the 2022 elections.
“It already has hampered the process,” says Rob Stutzman, a veteran political consultant familiar with the redistricting process. “Essentially, the commission won’t receive data from the Census Bureau until after the districts are supposed to be drawn.”
During the last cycle in 2010, the commission released initial maps for the Golden State’s political districts in mid-March. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made a similarly timed release this year impossible.
“You can think of the release of the data as kind of an inflection point in the process.” — Paul Mitchell.
The district boundaries are critical in an election. They reflect the shifts in populations, ethnic and racial diversity and other factors that have changed in the past decade.
Realistically, maps for California’s Congressional, state Assembly, state Senate, and Board of Equalization districts could be released next February. This could mean candidates wanting to run in the June primary wouldn’t even know what district they are running in until a few weeks before the filing deadline. The data also is used to redraw local districts, such as Los Angeles County’s supervisorial districts.
Not all is doom and gloom for the redistricting process, however.
“You can think of the release of the data as kind of an inflection point in the process,” says Paul Mitchell, Vice President of Political Data, Inc, which markets campaign data. “That inflection point was March 31st in 2011. [The commission] had barely gotten up and running when people had already started drawing maps.”
Back in 2011, after the Census data had been released, organizations besides the CRC began to draw draft maps for consideration.
“There’s a possibility that there is a silver lining to late data,” Mitchell continues, “we can have more conversations about the things we ought to be discussing during this process: communities of interest.”
“We had the foresight to ask for extensions to map deadlines months ago when the Census first said there were going to be data delays.” — Jane Andersen
Communities of interest are geographically contiguous populations that share common social and economic interests. They serve to help avoid situations like in Maryland and Ohio where communities are split up across multiple districts to gain partisan advantage for one party or another.
The more clearly the CRC can define communities of interest, the more representative and organic they can make Congressional districts, for example.
This means people like Mitchell and Jane Andersen, the current chair of the CRC, see opportunities alongside the challenges brought by the data delays.
“We had the foresight to ask for extensions to map deadlines months ago when the Census first said there were going to be data delays.” said Andersen. Back in July of 2020 the State Legislature successfully petitioned the California Supreme Court for a deadline extension.
But there is a downside: The commission may get more time for preliminary work, there is less time available to actually draw the maps. Also, citizens will get less time to give public comment on actual draft maps.
Andersen, however, says the CRC is already doing work to address these shortfalls.
“Again, California looked way ahead, and we see this as a silver lining. Working with the Legislature, we’ve created what’s called a Community of Interest Tool. It’s a community mapping tool that’s available publicly online.”
Anyone living in California can use the Community of Interest Tool to describe their community and draw it on a map. The CRC will then use this data to draw maps that will fairly represent California citizens.
If used widely enough, the Community of Interest tool could give the CRC access to an unprecedented amount of public input before the 2020 Census data is even released.
Though even in the best-case scenario, the Community of Interest Tool won’t be able to eliminate all of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the redistricting process. Each county is acting on its own schedule for supervisorial districts, and it will take a while to sort through prison populations. Which is why Andersen says community participation is all the more important.
“Most people are thinking ‘let’s just ignore redistricting until the Census data arrives,’” Andersen said.
“We’ll already be in a scramble at that point. We want California to be involved now.”
Editor’s James Aranguren is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of Southern California.