Across the state, organizers are banding together to make sure new congressional, legislative and local districts lead to diverse representation. The track record of the Citizens Redistricting Commission is mixed, according to two recent studies.
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Redistricting — the redrawing of maps for congressional, legislative and local seats — happens every ten years after the Census. Its goal? To make sure everyone is represented equally.
In 2008, California voters took redistricting for state offices away from the Legislature — which often drew maps to the advantage of elected officials or one political party — and gave the power to an independent commission. In 2010, voters added congressional maps to the commission’s duties. One of the cardinal rules that voters set: Consider diversity, including abiding by the Voting Rights Act.
The track record of the Citizens Redistricting Commission is mixed on that score. Statewide, Latinos make up 30% of the voting age population, but are a majority in just 19% of the current 173 congressional and legislative districts, according to an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California. And that’s only a slight increase from the 15% under the previous maps. Asian Americans are nearly 15% of the population, but a majority in just one district, while there is still no district where African Americans are the majority.
Still, between 2012 and 2020, the commission’s new districts largely succeeded in helping to add elected officials of color in California, according to a study by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute: The number of Latinos and Asian Americans elected to Congress doubled, and the numbers of Latino, Black and Asian American legislators also increased, compared to election results from the maps drawn by the Legislature after the 2000 census.
Under the final maps approved by the commission on Dec. 20 for 52 U.S. House districts and 120 state Assembly and Senate districts, the number of Latino-majority districts would increase from 10 to 16 in Congress and 24 to 32 in the Legislature, according to a new PPIC analysis. The number of Asian-majority districts would go from one to two, in the state Assembly, and the number where Asians would make up at least 30% of voters would drop from 18 to 16. There would still be no districts with a majority of African Americans, but the number with at least 30% Black voters would increase from two to four.
This round of redistricting is the first under a new state law that prioritizes keeping “communities of interest,” including ethnic enclaves, together for city and county districts. (That was already the case for congressional and legislative districts.) The 2019 FAIR MAPS Act also requires public input at every step of the process, so across California, local advocacy groups are banding together to propose maps.
But even these advocates say it’s impossible to take partisanship out of the process entirely. And this time around, the priority on diverse representation — and the fight for political power — is also being complicated by several factors:
- For the first time ever, California is losing a congressional seat. Experts say it will likely be carved out of Los Angeles County, where the population grew more slowly than the rest of the state. And that could set up a conflict between Latino and African American advocacy groups.
- The challenges of conducting the 2020 Census during the pandemic, and decisions made by the Trump administration, may have resulted in undercounting African Americans at significantly higher rates than usual. Facing delays, the Census Bureau has extended into early next year a follow-up door-to-door survey to check possible undercounts, NPR reports.
- And a sped-up redistricting timeline due to the delay of census data means less time for all involved to come up with proposed maps and state their case.
Here’s a look at some key community movements to shape the districts:
Los Angeles County
The People’s Bloc — an alliance of 34 groups working to ensure ethnic communities in Los Angeles County aren’t divided — was born with the 2020 Census.
The bloc includes the Community Coalition of Los Angeles, founded by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in 1990 to address substance abuse, poverty and crime in South Los Angeles. With a federal grant, Bass organized against a surplus of liquor stores and for better land-use policies, school funding and foster care.
The six-term representative and former Congressional Black Caucus chairperson announced Sept. 27 that she’s running for L.A. mayor this year. That has fueled speculation that, given the need to drop a district, the 37th District she represents could be redrawn in a way that dilutes the power of Black voters. The district includes the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Pico-Robertson and South Los Angeles, among others, as well as Culver City and the unincorporated communities of View Park and Ladera Heights.
Now, 29% of the district’s voting-age population is African American, 27% Latino and 11% Asian according to the new PPIC analysis. The neighboring 43rd District, represented by Maxine Waters, is 28% Black, and the 44th District, represented by Nanette Barragán, is 22% Black.
During a redistricting commission meeting on Oct. 13, a consultant said that Black people often vote in concert with Latinos so they would be adequately represented in a coalition district. But several commissioners said based on public input, they would consider a Black majority congressional district in Los Angeles County. There are also maps that would create as many as five Latino majority districts in the county.
In a blistering commentary published Dec. 8, Bass and state Sen. Steven Bradford said that the commission’s preliminary maps “would nearly wipe out Black elected officials serving Los Angeles County residents in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.”
The commission revised state Assembly districts on Dec. 7, is working on congressional maps this week and plans to take up state Senate districts next week.
Advocates say the need to keep Black communities together became clear during the 2003 flooding of Watts. In 2001, the neighborhood was divided into three different congressional and legislative districts, confusing residents as to which representatives to turn to for help, according to Common Cause, a government watchdog group. In the 2011 redistricting, the neighborhood was brought together into one district, the 44th.
In addition to that history, the need for the People’s Bloc became clear during the efforts last year to get people to fill out the census forms, said Kirk Samuels, director of civic engagement with the Community Coalition. The Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question on the form deterred people from filling it out, as did COVID-19. The protests after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd were another factor.
The new alliance is involved not only in the congressional map, but new city council districts being drawn by a local commission appointed by council members and the mayor.
“We wanted to make sure that the Black community was protected throughout this redistricting process, that they are included in the process by having representatives that reflect their interests and their communities,” Samuels said.
Fair representation will help Black neighborhoods have access to funding and resources, he said: “We want to make sure that when these lines are drawn that they’re drawn in a way that brings assets back to these communities, that brings investment back to these communities.”
Fresno County isn’t the same county it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Its total population grew from 930,450 in 2010 to more than 1 million in the last decade, and its Hispanic or Latino population grew to 53.6% from 50.3%.
Both sides in the unsuccessful effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom focused on Latino voters, who comprise California’s largest ethnic group, at 39% of the statewide population, and an increasing share of registered voters, at 28%.
With the changing population, it’s no surprise there was backlash to comments by some Fresno County supervisors, who adopt the board districts, about their intent to keep them largely the same.
After the ACLU sent a letter to supervisors on Sept. 16 warning them that they would be violating the law, two of them told the Fresno Bee that they would follow the law.
But activists are still wary.
“Twenty years ago they put a rubber stamp, and now they’re just fiddling around the edges,” said Pablo Rodriguez, founding executive director of Communities for a New California Education Fund, a group focused on civic engagement.
That can result in gerrymandering, either through “packing” — concentrating blocs of voters to limit their power to one district — or “cracking” — spreading voters out so that their influence is diluted.
Ariana Marmolejo, communications associate with the education fund, said in the current proposed supervisor maps, every community of interest in the coalition is split. “When communities are divided they can’t advocate for the things they need and for themselves,” Marmolejo said.
In Fresno County, that means decisions on public health, public works projects and, in the bigger picture, the region’s growing inequality. Census data from 2019 showed that about 1 in every 5 residents was living in extreme poverty. And a history of exclusionary housing policies means that extreme poverty is concentrated into certain areas at one of the highest rates in the nation.
Without significant changes in supervisor districts, that cycle is likely to continue, Marmolejo said.
“Neighborhoods are going to change, kids are going to grow old. And then you’ve entirely disenfranchised a new generation of people,” Marmolejo said. “This has shaped Fresno. This is why we are where we are today.”
And while many of these community groups have long been organizing for representation, Marmolego said the FAIR MAPS Act gives them support and legal protection. Another thing that helps: technology that lets groups share proposed maps and coordinate within the alliance, or even with other groups in the state.
“Even at the state level, because we lost a congressional district, everything in California is going to look different,” said Rodriguez. “There’s going to be a lot of tension… There are incredible ramifications. And we have to balance federal law with making sure we keep communities of interest whole.”
Orange and San Diego counties
While this year’s redistricting process fosters a more grassroots approach, it has its obstacles. Sometimes a single map can’t meet all the desires of every community. There are also limitations of the Census data itself.
Orange County is home to “Little Arabia,” where there is a large Arab population, including immigrants and refugees. But according to census data, Arab Americans are counted as white. That means Arab American communities don’t always see the resources they need, said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab-American Civic Council in Anaheim.
Like the Central Valley, the demographics in Orange County have changed over the last 20 years, and the maps should reflect that, Al-Dabbagh said.
“That is the whole point of the census and redistricting — to ensure that communities have a say in this process,” he said. “We’re not a rich, white county like people assume, or how it used to be. We’re very diverse.”
The council is one of the 16 groups that make up the People’s Redistricting Alliance, which, like the other coalitions in the state, aims to make sure redistricting isn’t driven by partisanship or solely by race, but instead leads to representation of communities’ struggles.
Those challenges include people who are struggling to pay rent, or who need services from a community center. “Those are the experiences that we wanted to be able to uplift, which are the experiences that are often erased from the process,” said Jonathan Paik, executive director of the Orange County Civic Engagement Table, which spearheaded the formation of the alliance.
In San Diego County, how residents’ different experiences should be considered in redistricting is up for debate. There has been a push for wealthier coastal cities to be grouped together, separate from inland communities, as well as a push to keep the military communities close to Camp Pendleton together.
And while the process is meant to be free of partisanship, it can still creep into public hearings.
“It makes sense to me that people would be calling to ensure that there are districts that are drawn that will ensure their interests in farming, or equestrian desires, or parks or waterways or fire concerns,” said Citizens Redistricting commissioner Trena Turner. “All of that makes sense — that you want a district drawn where an elected official will become one that understands your issues. “
The public comments that give Turner pause, though, are ones with threads of racism or prejudice.
“For me it’s one of those eyebrow-raising comments. Does that have to do anything with the issues you want to protect? Or are you making a judgment call about the people in that area?”
For the record: This story has been updated to clarify that a 2019 law prioritizing “communities of interest” applies to local redistricting. That was already in place for congressional and legislative redistricting.
California congressional districts are drawn by an independent citizens commission, but it’s hearing from candidates and party officials who don’t disclose their partisan affiliations.