California’s independent redistricting commission has received generally good reviews for its new maps that voters are using to elect legislators and members of Congress in November.
Voters who say they are disenfranchised want similar panels to draw their local districts — and they’ve gone to the Legislature to make that happen.
Three bills on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk would overrule local officials and require independent redistricting commissions in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties, respectively. If he signs them, those panels would work on districts for the boards of supervisors in those counties, starting after the next Census in 2030.
“I think people are aware now of how politicians have been using political lines to keep themselves in power. I think people want to see that power in the hands of the people,” said Lori Pesante, civic engagement director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which sponsored Assembly Bill 2030 for the Fresno County citizens commission.
“Redistricting is very much in the consciousness of the people, so I hope the conditions are ripe now for the governor to sign,” she added.
While Newsom vetoed a bill in 2019 that would have required all 21 counties with populations of 400,000 or more to establish independent commissions to draw county supervisor districts, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed two other bills to create such panels just in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Under current law, counties are allowed to use advisory or fully independent commissions, but aren’t required to have them.
The 2022-23 state budget includes $1 million for the Riverside citizens redistricting commission.
“This failure of a majority of the Board of Supervisors to protect the voting rights of our Latino community illustrates why an independent citizens redistricting commission is needed to draw fair maps for Riverside County,” Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes, a Corona Democrat, said in a statement. She authored AB 1307 to create the Riverside commission and is vice chairperson of the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
Advocates in Riverside County aren’t waiting on a new commission to draw fairer districts in the future. They’re suing to overturn districts drawn by the board of supervisors last year, alleging that the maps disenfranchise Latino voters by splitting them among districts.
“What we saw happen in Riverside County was pure political self-preservation by the county supervisors,” said Michael Gomez Daly, executive director of Inland Empire United, a coalition that seeks to elect diverse candidates in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. “It had nothing to do with fair representation for the communities that they purport to serve.”
Riverside County is a prime example of the voting population shifts that can occur from decade to decade — and even more quickly. Within just one year during the pandemic, from July 2020 through July 2021, Riverside County gained 36,000 residents — the third highest county population gain in the nation. Even before that, the county saw 10% growth, with a couple of cities nearly doubling in size from 2010 to 2020.
It seems logical: The Inland Empire led the country in job growth after the Great Recession. It’s home to warehouses for retail giants such as Amazon, Walmart and Target. Housing is also more affordable than the rest of Southern California.
Riverside County’s demographics have also shifted, with increases in the Latino population and Asian populations, and decreases in the white population.
That’s why groups including Inland Empire United and the UCLA Voting Rights Project warned supervisors that the maps they were leaning towards would disenfranchise Latino voters. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say their input on a map with two majority-Latino districts instead of just one was ignored.
“For months, Riverside residents demanded the county to do the right thing and adopt maps that would lead to equitable and fair representation. Instead, the supervisors ignored the community and adopted maps that would ensure they had easier reelections,” Daly said in a statement in June. “The supervisors’ redistricting plan is a classic case of politicians putting their own interests over people.”
The plaintiffs are calling on the board to rescind the current map, and adopt one that keeps communities of interest together.
Similar complaints are behind the bill for a Fresno County commission.
Critics said that supervisors approved a map that changed little from the 1991 version, despite a growing Latino population.
“Our county is changing, and Latinos now make up the majority of the population,” Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, a Fresno Democrat, said in a statement when he introduced AB 2030. “We can no longer tolerate a process in which elected officials give lip service to following redistricting requirements, ignore public input, and then adopt a map that serves their purposes. This change is long overdue.”
The bill for the Fresno commission, however, is opposed by both the county and the California State Association of Counties.
In Kern County, Assemblymember Rudy Salas, a Democrat from Bakersfield who is now running for Congress, introduced AB 2494, asserting that the bill would save taxpayer money and prevent future lawsuits against the county. The bill was introduced after a 2016 lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in which the group said the 2011 redistricting plan divided the Latino community into two districts, neither of which had enough Latino voters to elect a candidate of their choice.
The Kern commission bill is opposed by the board of supervisors.
All three bills set out criteria for commission members similar to the statewide commission. For example, anyone who has run or been elected to public office in the past ten years wouldn’t be eligible to serve.
California Common Cause, which led the effort for the statewide independent redistricting commission, said it supports the goals of the three bills, but wanted to see the language around the partisan makeup amended.
The bills — modeled after the ones approved for Los Angeles and San Diego counties — call for the 14-member commissions to reflect the partisan makeup of each county. Common Cause recommends either five Democrats, five Republicans and four no party preference members, like the state’s commission, or one that removes partisanship from the application process altogether.
“We definitely want to emphasize that we are super supportive, and any approach is superior to the current incumbent-driven process,” said Alesandra Lozano, program manager for California Common Cause’s Voting Rights & Redistricting division. “We noted that in the event the amendments were not taken and implemented, we recommend requiring a supermajority of final approval for the maps in order to ensure that the approved maps have broad support.”
The Future of Local Redistricting
A dozen new city and county independent commissions drew maps in the past year for voters to use from 2022 to 2030, using data from the 2020 Census. There are four counties with independent commissions, 24 with advisory commissions and 30 with no commission, according to Common Cause.
“County-level redistricting does seem to receive less attention than state-level or city-level redistricting,” Sietse Goffard, senior program coordinator on the Asian Law Caucus’ voting rights team, said via email.
But over the past couple of redistrictings following the once-in-a-decade Census, the public has been more engaged, said officials from both the Asian Law Caucus and the League of Women Voters of California.
Maps drawn by independent commissions don’t guarantee the process is flawless — but since commissions have specific guidelines, the results are typically better than when elected officials do redistricting, advocates say.
Maps in Los Angeles County were redrawn by an independent commission for the first time, and the process was an improvement over previous mapping, said Chris Carson, redistricting director for the League of Women Voters of California. When the commission was appointed by the board of supervisors, it was clear the appointees were acting in supervisors’ interests, she said.
The independent commission created one new majority Latino district and was able to keep most of the city’s historically Black community together, as well as grouping beach communities and cities heavily defined by the entertainment industry, according to the commission’s final report.
Christian Grose, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southern California, said that in the absence of a statewide requirement, a county-by-county approach might be a smart way to test the waters of requiring independent commissions in places where they could have high impact, such as Kern County.
“It’s potentially easier to get some support when it’s just a specific geographical area,” he said.
The test cases may lead not just to more bills that would require independent redistricting, Grose said, but could lead some counties to decide to do so on their own.
California Common Cause, which observed more than 60 redistrictings over the past year, is still reviewing its data to determine its legislative recommendations for next year.
“From this past cycle we now have over a year’s worth of observational data, and we came to the conclusion that, just, without a doubt, independent redistricting commissions do lead to better outcomes for voters than any of the available alternatives,” Lozano said.
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