“Why is this so hard?”
That’s what Matt Rexroad, owner of Redistricting Insights, tweeted repeatedly when he saw news that downtown Sacramento City Councilmember Katie Valenzuela faced a recall from residents of the uptown neighborhoods in East Sacramento.
The problem: It wouldn’t be a legal recall. But confusion over that fact seemed to drag on for weeks.
Redistricting under state law is a forward-facing action – it ensures that districts are legally balanced for the next election.
Here’s the background: In December, Sacramento, like many cities and nearly all counties in California, completed their redistricting process. When it was done, the city told council members that the new districts were now theirs, and started reassigning constituent services, put a notice on the official website and informed residents who their new council member would be.
This seemed common sense at the time, and it’s possible that many cities, counties and other agencies have done this.
But redistricting under state law is a forward-facing action – it ensures that districts are legally balanced for the next election. It doesn’t look back and undo votes in the past.
The confusion deepens when the state law or local charter says that districts become effective immediately upon adoption. But that doesn’t mean what some think it does.
In the state Constitution, the lines drawn by the redistricting commission for Congress and the Legislature are effective immediately upon certification by the Secretary of State. That means the new maps don’t need to go to the Legislature for approval, and the counties are able to start using them for rearranging precincts and allowing candidates to file for office in the coming elections.
A city or county cannot pull the rug out from under an elected official and toss them into a new district.
It’s also the case that when a court intervenes in a redistricting, the new lines are immediately effective – meaning no other agency has to approve them.
For local redistricting commissions there is a choice. Either they are immediately effective, and go into place for the next election right away, or they are not, and the recommended plans have to be approved by the county or city being redistricted. The latter is called an “advisory” process and often leads to the city or county changing the work of the commission and substituting their own lines – a less desirable version of reform.
However, in none of these instances does the enactment of new district lines mean that they impact the current elected officials and their districts.
State law is crystal clear: “The term of office of any council member [or supervisor] who has been elected and whose term of office has not expired shall not be affected by any change in the boundaries of the district from which the council member was elected.”
A city or county cannot pull the rug out from under an elected official and toss them into a new district. A council member or supervisor continues to serve a full term and represent the district to which they were elected.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would represent Solano and Contra Costa Counties, as that’s the new 8th Congressional District.
If redistricting did undo prior elections and place incumbents in the new seats, millions of Californians would have entirely new legislators and members of congress foisted upon them before the next election.
For example, Sacramento’s state Sen. Richard Pan would be representing Placer County, because that’s where the new Senate District 6 extends. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would represent Solano and Contra Costa Counties, as that’s the new 8th Congressional District. And with only 52 districts, where would Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, representing the 53rd Congressional District, go? Would Jacobs maybe represent the new Congressional seat in Texas or Florida where California’s lost congressional district has gone?
This, of course, would be absurd.
If you elect a city council member for four years, they will be your representative for all four years.
Redistricting can be confusing, but here is a simple way to think about it: When you elect someone to Congress, the Legislature, city council or school board, you are electing them for a set term, and no administrative process or action of the city to reorganize districts can undo the power of that vote.
If you elect a city council member for four years, they will be your representative for all four years. If they are recalled or move or die in office, it is your voting right to elect their replacement for the remainder of the term.
We saw this in action as voters in the 22nd Congressional District voted to elect a replacement for Devin Nunes, who resigned in 2021. That election was held under his old CD 22 lines, not the new 22nd District, which is a modified version of the district Congressman David Valadao represents and where he will be running for re-election this year.T
This City of L.A. language is clearly in conflict with California law and likely unconstitutional. But it will take someone at the city to stand up and push back…
Sacramento is one instance of this confusion causing a problem with local representation after redistricting, but that may not be the end of it. There are apparently other cities and counties that have done the same thing.
Both Los Angeles and Orange counties have reportedly reassigned their current supervisors into seats drawn by the redistricting process. And the City of Los Angeles has done it too.
In Los Angeles, for example, the city charter is more explicit in saying that the lines take effect immediately for representation, recall and replacement. This City of L.A. language is clearly in conflict with California law and likely unconstitutional. But it will take someone at the city to stand up and push back on this to reform the city’s redistricting process — something that has been rather lacking.
The consequences of redistricting don’t get forced upon residents prior to them being able to exercise their voting rights.
These are examples that have risen to the surface in the discussion around what has happened in Sacramento, but I presume there are many more.
Nearly every one of the municipal redistrictings I have done — more than 100 to date — have had a discussion of how and when district lines go into effect. But many cities and counties have been doing their redistricting on their own, with no experts to guide them away from these traps.
As is often stated, elections have consequences. And redistricting has consequences too. But the consequences of redistricting come when the voters elect representatives under those new lines – they don’t get forced upon residents prior to them being able to exercise their voting rights.
Cities and counties that recently redrew their political maps should all make sure they are communicating properly about what the new redistricting means and the future dates when those lines actually come into effect.
They must make sure that elected officials and the public understand that their past votes aren’t being undone because of redistricting.
Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm