Redistricting: The Line Dancing Ends

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There are two, and only two, options left at this point for the political districts in which Californians will reside for the next decade: the current maps from the state's citizens redistricting panel or as-yet-to-exist maps drawn by judges.

And that second option -- judicial intervention -- only will happen if opponents prevail in court, the voters step in, or a subset of the 14 commissioners change their vote on August 15.

On Friday morning, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission ended months of debate, discussion, and drawing with conditional approval of district lines for the Legislature, Congress, and the state Board of Equalization.

In 17 days, the commission will reconvene to formally certify the maps, the final step of the process laid out by voter-approved initiatives in 2008 and 2010.

"The commission is confident that these maps will prevail will against any and all legal challenges," said commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy. "We also believe that the new districts will be upheld in the court of public opinion."

Those two tests are, of course, huge. Already, political and interest group forces are mulling over challenges to the independently drawn maps -- the first redistricting process in California history to be conducted largely in public with statewide hearings and thousands of citizen suggestions.

You've got a few different options for viewing the maps. The commission's own web-based map system allows you to see your own state and congressional district by typing in an address; it also uses Google's satellite maps to allow you to zoom in to see how the lines cross streets, bridges, and beaches.

For political junkies, there are two very good sites that offer partisan, ethnic, and incumbent information: the Democratic consulting firm of Redistricting Partners and the GOP firm Meridian Pacific. These are the guys most reporters have turned to for help in understanding the political implications, given that the commission did not use incumbent and political party information.

There's also the website of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, whose map allows you to toggle between draft maps, the existing political maps (drawn in 2001), and the maps submitted by several interest groups.

The Challenges: Constitutional, Legal

The drawing of 177 distinct districts was bound to spark criticism, as the decisions have the potential to shape California politics for the next decade. But the commissioners, for the most part, engaged in a pretty cordial and methodical manner. Several said on Friday that they saw their work as a public service, and not as a political exercise.

But that doesn't mean everyone always agreed. Last Sunday night, the citizen commissioners fought over the most contentious issues of the months long saga: how to balance competing community (and possibly legal) interests, and whether specific objections would compel individual commissioners to reject the entire set of maps.

No law has played a more prominent role than the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, an historic yet complex set of rules about the rights of minority voters. It's a safe assumption that the crux of any legal challenge to the commission's maps will be based on VRA issues. At first, the panel focused its attention on the portion of the VRA (Section 5) that requires federal approval of redistricting plans for areas deemed to need additional oversight of the rights of minority voters. That applies to four counties in California: Kings, Merced, Monterey, and Yuba. The maps for those counties often led to districts for adjacent areas that were partly or completely dictated by the choices made to satisfy the federal law.

But perhaps more vexing for the commission was drawing districts that comply with Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits diluting the rights of minority voters in a particular community. This is usually interpreted as drawing districts where minority voters are in high enough concentrations to be influential, but not so high as to have been unfairly "packed" into a single district and thus denied the chance to influence more than one political contest.

The commission grappled with how many Section 2 congressional and legislative districts it can draw... or should draw. And that was the focus of the emotional Sunday meeting of the commission, where the debate focused on congressional districts and the Latino and African American populations of Los Angeles County. Latino rights groups have consistently pushed the commissioners to draw more Latino VRA districts (also known as "majority minority" districts), and offered their own mapping proposals that did just that.

But in some cases, commissioners seemed to think that could come at the expense of African Americans, perhaps packing too many into too few districts.

"What this does is reduce the areas where African American candidates can be elected [to Congress]," said commissioner Andre Parvenu as consideration was given to an LA reconfiguration that split up a very long coastal district -- which thus impacted LA ethnic communities to its east. Parvenu, an African American who said he marched in Virginia as a child in support of the VRA, then said, "I will not vote for this map, that's the bottom line."

In the end, the position of Parvenu and other commissioners prevailed: the LA districts were not re-reconfigured. Others then suggested the VRA standard -- which largely, in California, is thought of as a way of increasing Latino political power -- was being applied inconsistently across the state. And at Friday's hearing to vote on the maps, that was the reason given by the two dissenting commissioners on the congressional maps: Republicans Jodi Filkins-Webber and Michael Ward.

"I felt that this commission had followed the constitutional priorities consistently on the Assembly and the Senate" but not on Congress, said Filkins Webber after the hearing.

Latino groups are already raising concerns about the maps. But whether that's just grumbling... or legally actionable... remains unclear. "It's very plain to see that the commission could have done better," said Steven Ochoa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). Ochoa says the federal law mandates that if a majority-minority can be drawn, it must.

In all, the commission drew 29 Latino and one Asian "Section 2 districts," spread out among the Legislature and Congress. Whether that's enough is a question that can only be answered in court.

Political Losers of the Week (Year?): Incumbents

In my radio story Friday morning, I noted that the most obvious macro change in this process has been the threat to incumbents. In Congress alone, 11 districts feature two (or three) veteran pols now bunking together. In some cases, members have already seen the writing on the wall and have stepped aside; in others, members are packing their bags and moving to an open district that they think they can win. And in others... well... these could be some real showdowns.

Few have been talked about as much as the rhyming rumble between Democratic congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley. In the Bay Area, a quandary for loyal Dems, too, as Rep. Zoe Lofgren has been drawn into a district with Rep. Mike Honda. And Republicans face challenges, too; longtime Rep. Elton Gallegly has seen his SoCal home drawn into a district with fellow GOP Rep. Buck McKeon. In San Diego, Rep. Brian Bilbray and Rep. Darrell Issa are now Republican roomies. And those are only the headliners.

There are also a large number of vacant seats -- districts in both the Legislature and Congress featuring no incumbent. The congressional ones will get snapped up pretty fast (U-Haul truck, Congressman?)... while the legislative districts will force some new recruitment efforts, especially by Democrats in the Central Valley, to find good candidates. In the Assembly, there look to be as many as 11 districts that are either tossups or slight "leaners," and these may be the "competitive" seats everyone hoped for through independent redistricting (5 are in this category in the state Senate, 8 for Congress).

For now, everyone takes a breath. The next two weeks will be entertaining, with editorial pages and interest groups either lauding or lamenting what's been drawn by the citizens panel. When asked whether any of them would change their vote between now and August 15 in the face of serious criticism, no commissioner stepped forward on Friday. If that's the case, these are the official maps... until an outside group, through either a successful lawsuit or a referendum, says otherwise.

Below: my radio story from Friday morning's edition of The California Report.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Caitlin

    ReDrawCA is another great website to view the maps, and it provides access to great data that you can map and chart for your district: http://bit.ly/nxERDi

  • http://www.lwvc.org Jennifer Waggoner

    The League of Women Voters of California applauds the work of both the commissioners and the public. Unlike redistricting in the past, this process has been open, transparent and participatory—a true citizen-driven process. We are confident that this first-ever commission will be a model for the entire nation.

    Through the entire process, the commission treated each other and the public with mutual respect and civility, setting a tone of reasoned discourse and deliberation, even as disparate views were expressed. The League celebrates this magnificent example of open, transparent government.

    California needs everyone to participate in order to be a fair, strong, vibrant democracy. All Californians should review the final maps and learn about their new districts as we wait for the maps to be approved and sent to the California Secretary of State on August 15.

    We have resources to help you understand redistricting on our League of Women Voters of California Education Fund site: http://cavotes.org/issues/redistricting-implementation

    To read more about our statement celebrating this momentous step in redistricting reform, please visit: http://www.lwvc.org.

  • Jennifer Burgess

    It’s clear the “republicans” on this committee are in name only. The changes to the redistricting maps are brutal. It’s very evident the main thing the committee was committed to doing was creating a supermajority of Democrats in the State Senate, so the pesky 2/3rds vote to jack our taxes up would no longer be an issue.