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Stakes are high in the Byzantine world of redistricting

A portion of the California map under the magnifying glass. (Photo: Sharaf Maksumov, via Shutterstock)

For most Californians, redistricting is a dark and mysterious process that has little to do with their daily lives. For politicians, it could be a matter of career life or death.

The creation of new district lines is underway right now in California, with the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission working to redraw 52 congressional districts, 80 Assembly and 40 state Senate districts, along with four state Board of Equalization districts. Preliminary maps already have been released, but there is little doubt that many — of not most — of the districts will be redrawn before an initial Dec. 17 deadline or, at the latest, a Dec. 27 deadline set by the courts.

By law, the new districts are drawn every 10 years, based on the latest census numbers.

“I’m still mystified by candidates announcing for various offices based on draft maps.” — Matt Rexroad

Although the districts remain in flux, some eager contenders have actually publicly declared they are running in those districts — even though the boundaries may be wildly different by the time the maps are made permanent.

“I’m still mystified by candidates announcing for various offices based on draft maps. That’s comical to me, and when people talk about their experience and leadership they are going to provide,” said redistricting expert Matt Rexroad of Redistricting Insight. “If you’re announcing for office based on draft maps, you’re not experienced and you’re demonstrating poor leadership.”

Redrawing the districts of the state’s shrunken congressional delegation is the more complicated, because California has lost a congressional seat, going from 53 to 52.

One way or another, a member of the state’s congressional delegation is going to lose his or her job.

The 34th Congressional District is L.A., currently held by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, was eviscerated in a first round of map drawing. But will that become permanent?

The state Supreme Court has set a Dec. 27, 2021, deadline for the delivery of final district plans to the secretary of state.

“The most Latino district in the country was just eliminated by a public redistricting commission, an independent redistricting commission, who has has repeatedly voiced their focus on maintaining the VRA (Voting Rights Act) and ensuring that they are not diluting the voting rights, particularly for the state’s growing Latino, Asian American and African American populations,” said Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners.

So far, the sparks have been relatively muted, but there is a good chance for full-scale warfare after the bipartisan commission releases its final district maps.  The state Supreme Court has set a Dec. 27, 2021, deadline for the delivery of final district plans to the secretary of state.

There are national implications.

If Republicans wind up with gains in California’s congressional delegation, the narrow Democratic control of the House could be wiped out. San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi would lose the House speakership, although Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy would most likely be her successor.

Districts must respect the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and Communities of Interest, and minimize their division

Commissioners must draw districts – Congressional, Assembly and state Senate – with approximately the same population. That means 761,000 Californians in each congressional district, about 988,000 in state Senate districts and 494,000 in Assembly districts. There is a ripple effect here, as well: Scores of local districts, from city councils to the school boards, are redrawn, too.

There are additional requirements as well:

  • By law, districts must comply with the VRA to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
  • Districts must be contiguous so that all parts of the district are connected to each other. (This seems an obvious requirement, but years ago a California congressional district was actually drawn that included San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Chinatown and Vallejo and even went under San Francisco Bay. “It’s gorgeous. It cuts in and out like a snake,” said the late Rep. Phil Burton, who drew the district for his younger brother, John. What about the district being partly underwater and its parts not connected? “It is (connected)– at low tide,” Phil Burton said. John Burton didn’t run for the seat, and it was later won by Barbara Boxer.
  • Districts must respect the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and Communities of Interest, and minimize their division, to the extent possible.
  • Districts should be geographically compact, that is, have a fairly regular shape.
  • Where practicable each Senate District should be comprised of two complete and adjacent Assembly Districts and Board of Equalization districts shall be composed of 10 complete and adjacent State Senate Districts.
  • Districts shall not be drawn to favor or discriminate against an incumbent, candidate, or political party.

As things currently stand, Democrats hold 42 of the state’s 53 congressional seats. Experts looking at the Commission’s first batch of maps believe they contain 39 seats that lean Democratic, and seven that lean Republican. Six districts are rated as toss-ups.

There are also potential problems in Fresno, which would be divided into three congressional districts and in Long Beach, which would split in half.

Potentially endangered California incumbents include Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove. Bera, a Democrat, was first elected in 2012, has won re-election ever since, but narrowly. The Commission’s latest map gives him more of Trump-leaning Placer County 

Speculation also swirls around potentially less-favorable maps for Democrats John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Roybal-Allard, while Republican Mike Garcia’s northern Los Angeles County district may become less-hospitable.

There are also potential problems in Fresno, which would be divided into three congressional districts and in Long Beach, which would split in half.

 And in San Diego, commission Chairwoman Sara Sadhjwani declared of preliminary congressional district changes: “Basically what we’re saying is, ‘The map is a hot mess.’ “

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