Oakland’s Low-Income Communities Look to Gain Electoral Power Through Redistricting
by Barbara Grady, Oakland Local
Oakland this fall will be redrawing the lines that define City Council and Board of Education election districts, a process called redistricting. While the word conjures up thoughts of boring wonkiness, what’s at play are many of the rights won in the historic Voting Rights Act and equal representation for Oakland’s various socio-economic enclaves.
Dozens of Oakland residents and community groups are getting involved and calling it an opportunity to give more electoral power to Oakland’s low-income residents of color in flatland neighborhoods that currently are merged with wealthier hills neighborhoods into voting districts. (See map above for current districts)
Redistricting happens every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, as required by city charter if populations shifts have occurred. Since 2003, West Oakland or District 3 has grown a lot and is now more than 10 percent more populous than Districts 2 and 5, which means the city must adjust its districts.
In the past, Oakland purposely carved itself into districts that included both low-income and wealthy neighborhoods so the interests of both would be addressed by each City Council and school board representation. This criteria was again stated in a city memo about redistricting plans earlier this year that suggested including both “hills and flatland” neighborhoods in most districts.
But now, many community groups and even City Council members are saying that such blended districts may have diluted the voices of low-income people around such issues as transportation, school resources, and delivery of city services.
“Local electoral districts are the building blocks of democracy and determine how city services are delivered, how educational opportunity is constructed and how we participate in governance,” writes the Oakland Votes Redistricting Coalition in a open letter to the City Council that the coalition is circulating at public meetings.
“Today flatland communities of color and low-income voters still experience disenfranchisement. Gerrymandered districts divide communities like Chinatown and Maxwell Park, and deliver affluent hill voter majorities in too many districts,” it continued.
The coalition will hold a city-wide meeting Wednesday night, Sept. 18, for residents to get involved in redistricting.
Ten new maps have been proposed by various residents, City Council members and the city’s consultant for redistricting, National Demographics Corp. Many of the maps focus on making districts more cohesive and sensical, getting rid of slices that extend into other parts of the city. Many would carve out more homogenous districts, for example in the Fruitvale or Deep East, so voters in these districts can be heard. See proposed maps at the bottom of this Web page.
The Voting Rights Act states that district lines should not be drawn to prevent minorities from having a majority and that lines should respect “communities of interest” and natural geographic or man-made boundaries like rivers or highways.
Yet Oakland’s current districts have some funny shapes.
For instance, District 5, which includes most of the Fruitvale neighborhood, also has a wide arm that extends across 580 up to the Piedmont border. District 4 covers the vast winding roads of Montclair but also reaches into a narrow part of East Oakland along High Street. Districts 6 and 7 represent East Oakland, but also the very wealthy hills neighborhoods east of Route 13.
‘Gerrymandered districts divide communities like Chinatown and Maxwell Park, and deliver affluent hill voter majorities in too many districts.’ – Oakland Votes Redistricting Coalition
That means the needs of schools in the East Oakland flatlands – low-income neighborhoods with under-resourced schools – are answered by the same school board representative who also must listen to hills voters whose children might go to private schools or public schools where there are parent donations, supply programs and equipment not seen in the flatland schools. And the issues of access to transportation for low-income people without cars are different from the concerns of wealthier residents.
“Oakland is almost evenly composed of African-American, white, Latino and Asian voters, but we have four City Council members who are white,” pointed out coalition member Sharon Cornu. According to the last U.S. Census, Oakland’s population is 28 percent African-American, 26 percent white, 25 percent Latino and 19 percent Asian.
The talk now is about forming homogenous “communities of interest” and neighborhood-defined districts so that socioeconomic groups would have representation on city and school district boards.
The City Council, which ultimately will vote on this, sounds ready to listen. Council Member Dan Kalb (District 1) met with constituents and urged them to get involved at an redistricting explanatory meeting held in his district, and Council Member Desley Brooks (District 6) has proposed a new map. The city of Oakland and the National Demographics Corp. consultant held meetings in July and September in each district.
One set of maps that garnered a lot of attention and discussion were drawn by resident J. Douglas Allen-Taylor. His idea is that socioeconomic groups should have discrete representation so their needs don’t get lost by louder or more powerful voices in a blended rich and poor district. His maps would mean groups could elect their own representative on the City Council and school board. His map is pictured below.
Anyone can propose a map by using this Maptitude software application for Oakland redistricting.
Or you can email comments or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the redistricting hotline at (510) 238-3079.
For the next two months, important citywide meetings are planned. In addition to the coalition meeting Sept. 18, the City Council Rules Committee will hold a meeting Oct. 3 to discuss process of redistricting, and then the full City Council will hold a hearing Oct. 15 to select from the proposed redistricting maps.
On Nov. 15, the City Council is scheduled to hold a first reading of a proposed redistricting ordinance. And on Nov. 19 it is scheduled to have a final hearing and vote on new district boundaries.
Sept. 18: Redistricting meeting, 6-8 p.m., HUB Oakland, 1423 Broadway
Oct. 3: City Council Rules Committee, 10:45 a.m., City Council Chambers, 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, 3rd floor