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What you need to know about redistricting in California

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This is what California's congressional districts could look like under new maps proposed by the state's redistricting committee.

A massive map-drawing effort is underway in states across the country. In California, members of an independent redistricting commission have been gathering feedback for months over what new voting districts should look like at the state level. Here’s what you need to know about redistricting, how it impacts you and how you can get involved.

A massive map-drawing effort is underway in states across the country. This process, which follows up the decennial census, will determine political lines for the next decade — from congressional to school board districts.

In California, members of an independent redistricting commission have been gathering feedback for months over what these new districts should look like at the state level. Local groups are also discussing things like city council districts and county boards.

Here’s what you need to know about redistricting, how it impacts you and how you can get involved.

What is redistricting?

After a decade of births, deaths and migration, state, local and congressional districts around the country may have unequal population numbers. Redistricting is like hitting the refresh button on those political maps. Using the latest data from the U.S. Census, new lines are drawn up for congressional, legislative, city council and other electoral districts.

Those new boundaries will remain in place for ten years, until the next round of redistricting in 2031.

Why does it matter?

Sara Sadhwani, a political science professor who serves as chair of California’s redistricting commission, calls the process “enormously important.” Sadhwani, who teaches political science at Pomona College, says the ability to elect a candidate of your or your community’s choice “often comes down to how those lines are drawn,” since those lines determine which neighborhoods and residents will be voting together in elections.

The candidates who win elections in turn “impact the funding streams that communities will receive and the kind of representation that they'll have” for the next decade, Sadhwani said.

After redistricting, you may be placed in a new city council, legislative or congressional district or see the boundaries of your districts shift, bringing in residents from other areas or moving neighbors into other districts.

Who draws the new maps?

The state and some local governments — including the cities of Sacramento and Roseville — have independent redistricting commissions to redraw district lines. These independent commissions are made up of community members who gather input to create new electoral maps.

In other areas, elected officials on the city council or county board of supervisors are in charge of redrawing their own districts, though they are required by law to take community input on new lines.

California’s Independent Redistricting Commission, which was created in 2008 via Proposition 11, is in the process of drawing up new lines for congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization districts (more about this group and how they were selected below).

Who is on California’s redistricting commission?

The group includes five Republicans, five Democrats, and four members with No Party Preference. You can learn about each member on the commission’s website.

There are strict rules about who can serve on the commission in order to ensure fair mapping. They include:

  • A requirement that commissioners are active, registered voters. 
  • Applicants who ran for office, were a registered lobbyist, worked for the state Legislature, a congress member from California, a political party or the state Board of Equalization within the last 10 years were disqualified.
  • Applicants who had a family member or in-law who met any of the above criteria were also disqualified. 

Thousands of people applied and attorneys with the state auditor’s office narrowed the field to about 60 applicants. Legislative leaders were given a chance to “strike” a total of 24 names from that list.

The first eight members of the commission were drawn lottery-style from the remaining pool. They chose the remaining six members from the pool of leftover applications.

Paul Mitchell, a redistricting and political data expert, called California’s commission “the gold standard” and said the multi-step winnowing of the applicant field resulted in a commission with an “incredible” breadth of backgrounds and skill.

And while there are Democrats and Republicans on the commission, Mitchell said there hasn’t been any “team red/team blue kind of stuff.”

“Their focus is on ensuring that we have good districts that represent communities,” he said.

What rules or guidelines are there for drawing new maps?

California’s redistricting commission is obligated to follow a set of criteria when creating new districts. They include, in order of priority:

  • 1. Ensuring districts are of equal population. 
  • 2. Comply with section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination in voting practices based on someone’s race. 
  • 3. Are geographically contiguous and keep cities, counties and “communities of interest” as intact as possible.

Other rules include making districts compact and an explicit ban on drawing lines to benefit a particular candidate or officeholder, among others.

While California’s commission has a legal obligation to ensure communities of color are not hurt by redistricting, Sadhwani said those communities have been especially proactive in making their voices heard during this redistricting cycle.

“Even though the state of California is extraordinarily diverse, candidates of color often still are drowned out in elections,” she said. “So we've definitely heard from Asian American communities and Black communities and Latinx communities from across the state wanting to ensure that their voting rights are upheld.”

Asian-American voters in Sacramento and the Bay Area and Black voters in Los Angeles in particular have advocated for district lines that strengthen their communities, Sadhwani said.

When will new maps be completed?

State and congressional draft maps will be released by Nov. 15. The public will have a chance to weigh in on those and suggest changes. Final maps must be unveiled by Dec. 23 and sent to the Secretary of State by Dec. 27.

Local governments have their own timelines but generally aim to adopt new maps by late 2021 or early 2022.

How can I make my voice heard?

You can tell the commission what you want your new Assembly, state Senate, congressional and board of equalization districts to look like directly on their website. You can also submit your thoughts on preliminary drafts, which the commission calls “visualizations,” using this form.

Have a good idea for what your districts should look like? You can even draw and submit your own map ideas for your area using this “draw my community” online tool. The commission will take input right up until their Dec. 27 deadline.

One of the commission’s chief mandates is to collect and consider input from Californians — so feedback is strongly encouraged, Sadhwani said.

She added that public engagement has been “really off the charts” since the commission began putting out draft visualizations earlier this month. “And that's fantastic. That's what we want.”

California is losing a congressional district. Where will that loss be felt?

While congressional maps are still being drawn up, it seems likely that the impact of a lost House seat will be felt in the Los Angeles area, which grew at a slower rate than the rest of California over the past decade.

But it’s not as simple as erasing a district and shuffling others around to fill in the gaps.

The commission is sending a strong message that it will protect majority-minority districts as much as possible, Mitchell said. Since the LA area is heavily diverse, it could mean the loss of a congressional seat will “be borne on a district that's kind of around the perimeter” of Los Angeles proper, such as toward the Antelope Valley to the north of LA or toward Orange County in the south.

What else is different this time?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in releasing data from the 2020 census, the map-drawing process kicked off later than usual and will wrap up at the end of December.

The postponement will benefit incumbents in the next election cycle, Mitchell says, because challengers won’t even be completely sure which district they’ll be running in until late December. That complicates fundraising and campaign strategy for potential candidates, while current officeholders can continue to meet constituents and hold fundraisers, even if their district lines may shift.

What is gerrymandering?

Until 2010, California’s legislative and congressional districts were drawn by state lawmakers. While some states have implemented independent commissions, lawmakers oversee redistricting in most other states.

“Politicians have been able to choose their communities, rather than communities choosing their representatives,” Sadhwani said.

Redistricting experts say this leads to an inherent conflict of interest during the decennial process and can lead to what's known as gerrymandering,when boundaries are drawn in a way that benefits one group over another.

Gerrymandering can take several different forms, Mitchell says:

Partisan gerrymandering is when maps are drawn to benefit one political party over another. This can also include incumbent gerrymandering, where maps are drawn to benefit an incumbent or keep them in a district they have historically represented.

That can sometimes look like “an arm [on the map] that goes out to somebody's house,” and is more common in local redistricting, Mitchell said.

Racial gerrymandering is the same concept as partisan gerrymandering, but to the benefit or detriment of certain groups. This can result in what is known as “cracking and packing,” where the voting power of a certain group — whether it’s a racial enclave or a bloc of partisan voters — is “cracked” into multiple districts to dilute their voting power, or “packed” into one district to weaken their strength in other areas.

Before the independent commission was created, researchers say the state Legislature had a track record of gerrymandering to protect incumbents, often resulting in unwieldy districts, such as the 11th Congressional District between 2001 and 2011, which “packed” just enough Republican voters between San Joaquin and several East Bay counties to ensure incumbent Richard Pombo won re-election.

Mitchell says amenity gerrymandering is when political maps are oddly-shaped to keep landmarks or beloved businesses in a certain district. He points to the Pasadena City Council map as an example. Every city council district touches Colorado Boulevard “so that all of them can have Rose Parade tickets,” he speculates.

What isn’t gerrymandering?

While gerrymandering can result in some oddly-shaped districts, experts say not all districts that look strange are necessarily gerrymandered.

“Just because it has weird shapes doesn't mean it's a gerrymander,” Mitchell said. “It might be that there's a Voting Rights Act concern that that weird shape is trying to address.”

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center, California’s 45th Congressional District in Orange County is an example of a district that looks slightly irregular but “does represent people well.”

The seat is currently held by Democrat Katie Porter.

Redistricting Resources