Local Government
Local redistricting comes into the daylight

Local redistricting comes into the daylight

By Paul Mitchell.

California has become a model for non-partisan, transparent, open and fair redistricting.

The state commission’s focus on legitimate redistricting practices — like enforcing the federal Voting Rights Act, preserving communities of interest, reducing any splitting of cities and counties, even drawing lines without regard to partisanship or incumbency — have earned praise among policymakers and researchers around the country. 

The transparency, public engagement, outreach to communities of interest, dissemination of mapping options and clear communication of rationale has forever changed redistricting and the public’s view of their place in the process.

Now we are seeing the first move of some of these elements to local redistricting, thanks to the Fair Maps Act, AB 849 by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, which Gov. Newsom signed last week.

Under California law, local governments were already required to do redistricting every 10 years – balancing population after each census to make them more equal in size and usually drawing lines so the largest population district is within 10% of the size of the smallest.

All local agencies that have district-based elections — such as county governments, cities, school boards, even water districts and other special districts  — are required to make these decennial adjustments.  They range from massive Los Angeles County with over 10 million people, down to the City of Bradbury, the smallest district-based city in California with just 1,000 residents.

The redistricting methods followed by local governments have varied around the state. 

Some local governments do redistricting in a fully-public process, holding outreach meetings, having all mapping options presented in a public setting, engaging the community and working to prevent gerrymanders.

Others have made this process more opaque, and have even put the needs of incumbents or political considerations ahead of the public interest. With little oversight and unclear rules, some redistricting has been a farce that produced little more than a patently political outcome.

The need for redistricting has increased in the last several years as more agencies have gone to district elections — rather than “at large” — in order to comply with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

There are even examples we’ve seen of agencies that haven’t fulfilled this requirement at all, sometimes for decades. 

In one local redistricting that I managed, the agency hadn’t done a redistricting in over five decades, and the largest district was more than 20-times the size of the smallest. This means that elections in that agency were dramatically diluting the voting and representative power of tens of thousands of voters in the largest district, while giving those in smallest district 20 times the voting and representative strength.

Additionally, the need for redistricting has increased in the last several years as more agencies have gone to district elections — rather than “at large” — in order to comply with the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

More than a hundred local governments, from big cities to small special districts, have made the switch, and they will be redistricting for the first time in 2021.

The act requires local agencies to use the decennial U.S. Census for determining equal population.

This is all being addressed under the Fair Maps Act and should result in a process where the public is being continually engaged in the drawing of election boundaries at the legislative level through the state’s redistricting commission, and at the local level through a process that encourages public engagement and commits local governments to following common redistricting practices.

This new law has several elements that are already a part of existing best practices for redistricting, some from state or local laws and ordinances, and others based on case law after decades of contentious U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Within the category of common redistricting best practices and case law, the act requires local agencies to use the decennial U.S. Census for determining equal population – balancing for the number of persons — not citizens, adults, voters or some other metric.

It also requires that districts are contiguous, and not skipping or jumping around, and that they reduce the splits of underlying public agencies that provide services to the districts.

The law even has a provision allowing any member of the public to force the courts to draw the lines if they don’t complete their redistricting after a specified date.

The new law also builds on existing laws used by the state’s redistricting commission, including blocking a local jurisdiction from drawing lines that are based on partisanship. 

It even has language keeping jurisdictions from using incumbency or where candidates live as a “community of interest.” District lines could likely still be drawn to preserve incumbent elected officials, but their priority is being pushed down the list and we could see more turnover in 2022 elections depending on how local agencies interpret the bill’s language.

As a real hammer against an intransigent or balky local government, the new law even has a provision allowing any member of the public to force the courts to draw the lines if they don’t complete their redistricting after a specified date.

The result has been an historic transition of our local elected officials from a older, whiter, less representative set of lawmakers  to a group that is closer to the people they serve

We in Sacramento often think just in terms of politics and policy through the lens of who is elected in the 173 legislative and congressional  races, plus a handful of statewide contests and the Board of Equalization seats.

But there are literally tens of thousands of local elected officials who have as much or greater power in determining the quality of life in our communities – from the safety on our streets, the water we drink, the schools our kids attend, the healthcare facilities we go to when we are sick to the rivers and lakes we vacation at when we are well.

The local agencies that oversee much of our interaction with government have been facing a number of transformative changes under pressure from Sacramento lawmakers for more than a decade, and this is just the latest example.

The result has been an historic transition of our local elected officials from a older, whiter, less representative set of lawmakers  to a group that is closer to the people they serve, both geographically and demographically.

And, for the most part, this has happened under the radar, without the attention paid to other changes in the state’s government.

Paul Mitchell is the vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm.

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