Rebecca Kimitch, Staff Writer
In seven months, California’s congressional districts and state Senate and Assembly districts will no longer be funky salamander-type shapes intended to ensure the reelection of incumbents. Instead they will be more natural boundaries intended to keep communities together under common elected representation.
Or at least, that is the idea.
Aug. 15 is the deadline by which the state’s new redistricting commission must come up with entire new maps to delineate the boundaries of California’s legislative districts.
Voters gave the task to the 14-member commission though propositions 11 and 20. And, under those ballot measures, one of the commission’s top priorities is keeping communities together in legislative districts.
So, tasked with that challenge, civic and community leaders are hoping public participation in the complicated redistricting process doesn’t stop at the ballot.
They are encouraging the public, over the next seven months, to tell the commission what defines their communities.
“If we want California’s Democracy to be healthy, all our communities have to have fair opportunities to participate,” added Rosalind Gold Senior of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
Redistricting must be done every 10 years following the U.S. Census to ensure that all legislative districts in the state and country have roughly equal populations. Typically redistricting is done by state
lawmakers, who often heavily gerrymander the districts to guarantee their re-election.
That process has sometimes resulted in cities and communities being split between two or more different districts – because keeping them together was less important than keeping incumbents in their seats.
For example, Whittier is divided between the Congressional districts of Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Cerritos.
And while the entire San Gabriel Valley has a population of roughly 2 million – enough for approximately three Congressional districts, instead six members of Congress have pieces of it in their districts, usually along with other parts of Southern California. That means their interest in this region is shared with other areas.
But now, instead of lawmakers, redistricting will be done by the commission, which must prioritize keeping “communities of interest” together.
So what defines a community of interest?
“They are communities with common interests, common concerns and common problems who want to stay together so they have the strongest voice to ensure their needs are served,” said Chris Carson, redistricting program director for League of Women Voters of California, which has been a strong backer of redistricting reform.
And it is communities who know themselves best.
“It is extremely important that people express their views to the commission directly,” said Tunua Thrash of the Greenlining Institute, which works to empower minority communities.
Minority rights organizations are particularly concerned about the potential results of the process. In the past, redistricting has been used to dilute the power of minority voters, sometimes in violation of the Voting Rights Act, which makes it illegal to dilute the minority vote.
In some cases, communities with a large number of people from a certain minority group are packed into one district, though by sheer numbers, that population could be enough to have a majority of votes in two districts.
In other cases, minority communities are split between several districts to dilute their power, in a process known as cracking. For example, Los Angeles’ Koreatown is divided between four Assembly districts.
“When this happens, the elected leader doesn’t feel obligated to listen to that community,” said Deanna Kitamura, statewide redistricting manager for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC).
For example, when a severe hailstorm hit Watts, which is famously split between four Congressional districts, no Congressmember immediately offered federal help for cleanup.
“It was not a concentrated piece of anyone’s district to make it a priority,” Thrash said.
Thrash and other minority leaders hope the commission will end the practice of packing and cracking of minority groups.
But one minority group’s perfect map might mean cracking or packing to another minority group, acknowledged Gold.
“Part of our responsibility is to figure out a way to navigate those tensions. When you have a state as diverse as California, how do you come up with a map that is fair to everyone?” she asked.
Still Gold is confident NALEO, APALC and other minority organizations can produce a map that works for everyone.
To do that, they say they and the redistricting commission need to hear from as much of the public as possible to fully understand how people define their communities.
The commission is planning at least 50 meetings across the state in the coming months. None have been scheduled yet in the San Gabriel Valley. Other organizations are planning additional meetings, including one hosted by APALC Feb. 22 at Bruggermeyer Library in Monterey Park.