For Some, Redistricting is Splitsville

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Even with testimony from the public and formal guidelines written into law, California's first-ever citizens redistricting effort has found no easy answers to the question, "What is a community?"

And so, in the statewide maps being certified Monday morning, some will see their communities split between political districts. Others will be lumped together with communities with which they think they have nothing in common.

The complexity and controversy of shaping political maps based, when possible, on community boundaries has been a dominant theme of the dozens of meetings and decisions made by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

On Monday morning's edition of The California Report, we take a look at how some of those decisions have left some grumbling in different parts of the state, while commissioners believe the new maps reflect a thoughtful and careful deference to the needs of the public.

The issue of which communities get what and in which maps they get it -- Assembly, Senate, Congress, Board of Equalization -- ended with less unanimity than the votes of the commissioners would indicate. That's because while almost every member of the panel ultimately endorsed the maps as the best possible outcome, several expressed reservations about the various visualizations right up until the very end of the map drawing on July 24.

The only community decisions that threaten the viability of the maps, though, are those related to minority communities. So far, only the state Senate districts have been targeted -- with one prominent Latino rights organization urging commissioners to reject the maps they drew at Monday morning's final hearing here in Sacramento.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the new maps is the set of legal criteria laid out in the 2008 initiative that stripped the Legislature of its redistricting power:

(1) Districts shall comply with the United States Constitution. Senate, Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts shall have reasonably equal population with other districts for the same office, except where deviation is required to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act or allowable by law.

(2) Districts shall comply with the federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1971 and following).

(3) Districts shall be geographically contiguous.

(4) The geographic integrity of any city, county, city and county, neighborhood, or community of interest shall be respected to the extent possible without violating the requirements of any of the preceding subdivisions. Communities of interest shall not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.

(5) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, districts shall be drawn to encourage geographical compactness such that nearby areas of population are not bypassed for more distant population.

(6) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, each Senate district shall be comprised of two whole, complete, and adjacent Assembly districts, and each Board of Equalization district shall be comprised of 10 whole, complete, and adjacent Senate districts.

What the commission quickly found, as most experts will agree, is that the first two criteria were paramount to all others... and that meeting each and every subsequent directive was impossible, for reasons including: California's population is not equally spread out, it's not as heterogeneous as some believe, and the needs of some communities conflict with those of others.

"Because of the way the lines were drawn in 2001, we really were addressing a 20-year redistricting issue," says commissioner Stan Forbes. He sees the panel's work as the first real fair reworking of districts since the ones drawn in 1991 under the jurisdiction of the California Supreme Court. Forbes says critics of the commission's work should remember how little public input, or equity, there was in the maps drawn by the Legislature in 2001.

"What do they think they would've gotten," he says, "if you had a body of legislators whose primary concern was to their own political fortunes?"

But politics isn't always about organized partisan operations; it's often about local issues and concerns unrelated to political parties. And with that in mind, one interesting result of the independent panel's work seems to be the acquiescence to local politics through the extensive reliance on testimony of community groups.

Not that this sits well with some.

Image via Statewide Database Map

"The thing that upsets me the most is the fact that the idea of an independent redistricting commission was to take politics out of redistricting," says Michael Harris, a city councilmember in Pleasant Hill. "And that's not what happened."

Harris' beef is with the state Senate district drawn for his Bay Area suburb, a district that stretches all the way north of Sacramento and west beyond the Napa Valley.

"The districts are supposed to have common economic and social interests," he said last week. "We have none of that in common with the rest of the district."

Contra Costa County is home to others who aren't thrilled with the commission's maps, either. Allen Payton, a former GOP elected official and now redistricting junkie, suggests that the region's congressional maps offer proof that the needs of some communities were greater than others.

"They looked at Contra Costa as the place to raid to balance out the (population of the) districts for the other counties," he said last week as we sat at an Antioch coffee shop along the new congressional line that splits the city in half.

Since at least 1971 (earlier records aren't online), the middle-class suburban/Delta community has never been split between congressional districts. Even so, Payton's gripe isn't so much splitting Antioch as it is other city splits which he argues flowed from the commission's insistence on keeping East Bay cities like Oakland and Richmond intact.

In the final commission deliberations over northern California districts, another preference of the citizens panel was noticeable: the distaste for drawing any district that crossed the Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County. Several commissioners in the hearing on July 13 raised concerns that the iconic bridge had become a "hard line" when drawing the region's districts.

While commissioners have been instructed by their attorneys to not discuss specific district lines, Commissioner Forbes last week nonetheless said in our interview that the Golden Gate Bridge line was based on "overwhelming" testimony from local residents to not mix two communities that, in their opinion, had nothing in common.

Forbes also took issue with critics that said the commission's definition of a community should have been more consistent.

"Are you going to have a 'one size fits all' for all of California," he asked, "when you have rural, mountain counties compared to inner city Los Angeles? And you're going to apply the same standard? That makes no sense at all."

Forbes says he believes the commission did a better job than the 2001 legislative maps at keeping communities intact. But a review of the data shows that on one basic level -- cities -- the 2001 maps performed fewer amputations. In 2001, the Assembly map split 35 cities into separate districts; the commission's map splits 42 cities. The same holds true for the state Senate (20 city splits in 2001, 23 in 2011) and Congress (42 city splits in 2001, 45 in 2011).

But cities are only one way to measure communities. And the commission was using a specific definition for "communities of interest" given to them by last year's Proposition 20 -- thus, perhaps, explaining the diminution of formal boundary lines found on maps.

The ultimate question, though, is whether this is all grumbling... and grumbling that was, in some cases inevitable... or whether it will become more. As recently as the weekend, Republican leaders were rattling the saber of referendum -- even though filing a referendum is easy and cheap... getting it on the ballot is not. And the state GOP looks to be short of cash.

If it's all just grumbling, then perhaps the lessons of this redistricting process -- the first of its kind in California -- will improve future efforts. The ultimate reality of redistricting is that the lines have to go somewhere; but keeping the criticism at a low level will no doubt help remind voters why they chose the new system in the first place.

Update: Audio to this morning's radio story is below. Just before 10:00 a.m., the commission gave final approval to all four sets of maps. No changes.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://none Carol M. Hehmeyer

    Mr. Meyers: I just heard your KQED talk about Redistricting. You had my friend Allen Payton on the show. Great. However you stated two things that were incredibly wrong: 1. you stated that the Commission was charged with optimizing minority votes. WHAT? They definitely are NOT so charged! They must comply with Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but they may not gerrymander to optimize minority votes. THAT would put them in violation of clear Supreme Court law; 2. you said “what defines a community” ….What! Community is defined in Article 21 of our State Constitution. It means the type of structural entities that we vote upon: school districts, water districts, libraries, etc. that we share in common in a community. It means consideration of the similarity of living conditions in a “community”…is it rural, agricultural, urban, suburban, etc. It is not unclear at all and has ZIP to do with “minorities” or ethnic groups, ZIP. Carol Hehmeyer

  • http://www.kqed.org/weblog/capitalnotes/blog.jsp John Myers

    Carol (and apologies that your comment didn’t appear until now, it was wrongly stuck in a spam filter):

    1. What my radio story actually said was that the commission was charged with drawing “districts that optimize the voting power of minorities.” And I think that’s accurate when you look at what’s covered by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Increasing the potential voting power of minority citizens — usually Latinos — is clearly the driving force behind the legislative and congressional districts drawn with Section 2 VRA in mind. As you know, the 50%-plus-one standard for citizen voting age population was used time and again by the commission. I don’t doubt that this raises questions about the effective voting rights of other citizens in those districts. And while I’m not a lawyer, I would concur that a laymen’s understanding of constitutional protections seems somewhat at odds with such mandates. But this comes down to a debate about what the VRA really requires and not whether the VRA gets priority over other community issues. As Prop 11 laid out, population and VRA issues trump other criteria.

    2. While there is a definition of “community of interest” now in the state constitution (via 2010′s Prop 20 and, as you point out, now in Article XXI), I would respectfully disagree that it’s well defined. It offers examples of what constitutes a community, but it by no means rejects any of the criteria the commission used — hence, the debate over whether the commission favored some communities over others. You’ll notice that the definition first says a community can be defined by “common social and economic interests,” and I think that’s clearly a subjective process. Prop 20′s proponent, Charles Munger, Jr., says he got the definition from the one used by the special masters who drew the maps in 1991 for the CA Supreme Court. But in an interview, Munger suggested to me that the definition was merely for guidance… which again, in my mind, leaves room for interpretation. That’s not to say I think the subjectivity is good (or bad), merely that it seems to exist.

    –JM