SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
A congressional map that splits Long Beach into two. The city of Fresno divided into three congressional districts. A state Assembly district in the Central Valley that could reduce the power of Latino voters.
These are only a few of the potential flashpoints as California’s independent redistricting commission slogs through its third week of working on early drafts of new legislative and congressional districts for the 2022 election and beyond — and as it prepares to release its official preliminary maps today.
But redrawing lines in response to public comments, advocacy groups’ pleas and commissioners’ own concerns can require cascading changes elsewhere, or could even mean blowing up entire statewide maps. And the pressure is on because commissioners face a compressed timeline.
Their foremost duty is to ensure every district in the state — 52 for Congress, 80 for state Assembly and 40 for state Senate — has about the same number of people. That’s about 761,000 Californians in each congressional district, about 988,000 in state Senate districts and 494,000 in Assembly districts. That can get complicated fast while trying to meet other requirements, such as not diluting any ethnic group’s vote and keeping districts geographically compact.
It’s even more complex this year because California is losing a congressional seat for the first time ever — and much of the tension centers on those maps. A series of marathon and at-times confusing meetings isn’t helping matters, either.
The commissioners have been discussing rounds of regional “visualizations” — hypothetical scenarios based on their direction to the line-drawers — while trying to incorporate some of the public input they’ve been receiving along the way, and in some cases going back to the drawing board.
In the first round of visualizations, for example, two longtime Black members of Congress were put in the same district in Los Angeles. That was fixed in the second round, but had ripple effects.
The panel is reviewing the fourth set of these visualizations, and worked late into Tuesday night. But there were apparently so many issues with the third set of congressional districts — where the biggest changes from existing districts are expected — that after a closed session Sunday, the commission removed them from its website until Monday.
“Basically what we’re saying is, ‘The map is a hot mess.’ Is that correct?” commissioner Sara Sadhwani said at Monday’s meeting, referring to congressional districts in San Diego.
Nonetheless, the commission still plans to release its official preliminary maps today, ahead of a Nov. 15 deadline. After that, no changes can be made for two weeks as public comment meetings start Nov. 17.
Then, there could still be significant changes between the preliminary maps and the final maps, which are due to the Secretary of State’s office by a court-ordered deadline of Dec. 27.
Especially given the condensed timeline, the preliminary maps won’t be perfect, said Fredy Ceja, communications director for the commission. The commission is already acknowledging that some districts still need a lot of work and that it will be doing a lot of line drawing next month.
“The commissioners have been very, very responsive to the community. So if the community has said, ‘Hey, we want to stay lumped together with this community,’ they try to make that a possibility,” he told CalMatters.
“And of course, you get instances where there’s conflicting public opinion or comment, where members of a community say they want to either go northeast, south or west. They’re trying to weigh those conflicting opinions. But they’ve done it with a smile on their face nonetheless. I think they’re pretty excited to be at this juncture.”
Others aren’t as thrilled — either by the potential districts or the convoluted deliberations so far.
Here’s more detail on some flashpoints already drawing attention:
Despite the mapping being done by an independent commission with a mix of Republicans, Democrats and independent members, the changes in districts still have ramifications for both parties — and hidden partisanship that continues to creep in.
And with control of Congress up for grabs, a lot of attention in California and across the country is focused on any built-in advantages for Democrats or Republicans in the new U.S. House districts heading into the 2022 election. That focus heightened after Republican wins in the Nov. 2 elections, including Glenn Youngkin flipping the Virginia governor seat.
California Democratic Party chairperson Rusty Hicks warned that Republicans could take the House by flipping only five seats nationally, which they could through gerrymandering, and said some of the most competitive races are in the state.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy — a Bakersfield Republican who hopes to replace Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco as House speaker — claimed that any Democrat who won in 2020 by 16 percentage points or less would have to fight for their seat next year. That would include six California House Democrats. But McCarthy, himself, could have a mostly new district, based on the latest draft maps.
Currently, Republicans hold 11 of California’s 53 U.S. House seats. The second round of maps suggested nine seats with an advantage for Republicans, according to an analysis by California Target Book, a political data firm.
The third set of lines showed nine districts where incumbents — some Republicans including Rep. Devin Nunes, as well as Democrats including Rep. Mike Levin — could face more competitive races, based on voter registration.
Diluting voting power
Of the many challenges that the census data delay caused, the Voting Rights Act data analysis may have been one of the most consequential.
After population numbers, the second highest criteria is that the district lines must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act — specifically, ensuring that minorities have equal access to electing representatives of their choice.
In the initial scenarios, observers quickly flagged that longtime Reps. Karen Bass and Maxine Waters — both prominent Black Democrats — ended up in the same Los Angeles district. While that potential conflict was lessened because Bass is already running for Los Angeles mayor, the draft map resulted in only one district L.A. district with at least 30% African American voters and likely to elect a Black representative.
That criticism was resolved in the second round of visualizations released and debated last week, which included two L.A. districts with at least 30% Black voter registration. The latest maps keep those lines.
But James Woodson, policy director for the California Black Census and Redistricting Hub, said concerns remain about congressional districts that split Black communities throughout the Bay Area, particularly in Pittsburg and Antioch.
“It’s important that Black communities are kept together in this area,” Woodson said, pointing to the lack of resources for low-income residents.
Woodson said the Hub also remains concerned about the “packing” of Black voters in Los Angeles into fewer Assembly districts and limiting their “political voice.”
After releasing draft maps for the Central Valley, the commission was inundated with calls from residents of both Kern and Fresno counties, who were strongly opposed to being grouped together in a congressional district.
Kern County residents spoke of concerns about competing water interests, as well as health equity, while residents from Fresno raised issues with the dilution of Latino votes by combining them with Kern County. But in the latest maps, they’re still together.
Fresno County residents also called in with their opposition to the city of Fresno being split into three different congressional districts.
One of the cascading effects of preserving two Los Angeles congressional districts with sizable Black populations was breaking up Long Beach.
Commissioners noted the community input they heard from a broad swath of people in Long Beach, including the LGBTQ+ community and the Latino community, asking to unite the city in one congressional district. Now, Democrats Alan Lowenthal and Nanette Diaz Barragán represent parts of Long Beach.
In this week’s maps, Long Beach was split into two congressional districts. While commissioners acknowledged that wasn’t ideal, they said they wanted to be fair to other cities that were divided, including Irvine and other smaller cities.
If commissioners want to preserve the districts in Los Angeles and keep Long Beach together, however, they may need to cross county lines, something they initially tried to avoid.
Any changes to Long Beach could have a domino effect on the Vietnamese community in Orange County, which, despite residents’ calls to be grouped together as a community of interest, is primarily in a congressional district that divides Westminster and Garden Grove.
Another flashpoint is San Diego, where commissioners on Monday tried to create more Voting Rights Act districts with at least 50% minority voting-age populations, including one to preserve a Latino voting bloc in the southern part of the county.
This week’s discussions did yield wins for some groups. The commission was able to keep the Hmong community in Central California together. Across congressional and legislative maps, most Native American tribes were also kept together.
And while the lines could change, Equality California, the largest LGBTQ+ civil rights group, hailed the congressional districts in San Francisco for keeping the community together.
“This is a good draft for reactions,” commission Chairperson Trena Turner said Monday night after completing the latest round of congressional maps. “We feel better about the reactions.”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.