Q&A: LA County redistricting is out of the hands of the supervisors. Here’s why that matters

When it comes to redrawing Los Angeles County’s political boundaries, this year is a first.

The yet-to-be-finalized new maps — which determine which communities will be represented by who on the Board of Supervisors — are in the hands of an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, a 14-member board charged with listening to the public and creating a final map, based on the latest Census figures. The act was once the domain of the supervisors, but not any more.

There’s much at stake for the nascent board, which last week released new mapping software the public can use to suggest and submit its own maps.

“We want to show a citizen commission can do the work,” said Gayla Kraetsch Hartsough, executive director of the commission, who is tasked with managing the board, and making sure it stays on track to meet a Dec. 15 deadline for what the county’s new supervisorial districts will look like. “If it’s to continue, we really are setting a precedent of how to do it. It’s my hope we get it right and this becomes the prevailing way we do it 10 years from now.”

Slowed by the pandemic and a delayed 2020 Census, the process is no less important, experts say.

“It has immense importance toward giving minorities the ability to equally proceed in the future and in the sharing of power in L.A. County,” said Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert. “There’s nothing more important in terms of giving minorities an opportunity to be part of the American dream than redistricting.”

In theory, the commission represents a significant change. Every 10 years before this year, it was the supervisors who drew the lines between their districts, a process which for decades was characterized by political dealmaking and self-preservation.

But in 2016, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 958, which aimed to bring the county’s redistricting procedures in line with the statewide system established by voters in 2008 through Proposition 11. The idea was to encourage good government reform and take election rule-setting from the hands of self-interested elected officials.

As the commission races toward its December deadline for a map to be released to the public, here is a primer explaining the complex process.

WHAT IS REDISTRICTING?

At the L.A. County level, it is the redrawing of  the county’s supervisorial districts based on Census data every 10 years. So, this year, the redraw is based on 2020 Census data and public input. That redraw essentially would create five revised supervisorial districts that reflect the changes in population and demographics  that have occurred in the current districts over the last 10 years.

The redrawing must fall under the federal Voting Rights Act. The county’s five supervisorial districts must:

Be geographically connected;
Be drawn so as to minimize dividing cities, neighborhoods, or communities of interest’
Not be “gerrymandered,” that is, drawn to favor any political faction, party or officeholder; and
Include about 2 million people each.

WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT IT?

“Power flows from redistricting,” Clayton said. “L.A. County has over 10 million individuals in it. We’d be like the 8th-largest state in the country. How that population’s numbers get broken down into districts determines who has influence in L.A. County.”

Clayton, long an expert in how the county draws its lines, himself has submitted a map for the commission’s consideration, based on changes in the population.

Under his calculations:

Janice Hahn’s Fourth District would become more Latino;
Hilda Solis’ First District would cede areas of the San Gabriel Valley and take over areas of the northeast San Fernando Valley; and
Kathryn Barger’s 5th District to represent more areas in the San Gabriel Valley including large Asian American communities.

Clayton’s map is just one configuration among many proposals submitted to the commission. But it illustrates potential power blocs in the city and how population shifts might affect who runs for office, or who stays in office.

WHO IS DOING THE REDISTRICTING?

The county Board of Supervisors used to redraw the maps for supervisorial districts. Zev Yaroslavsky, who as a city councilman and then a supervisor from the 1980s through 2000s, said the process had its “pluses and minuses.”

It could be “ugly,” he said, as “people who make the decisions have a very profound, and emotional stake in it.” But decisions were also being made by people who knew and understood the implications of redrawing the lines. He noted that in more recent years, lawmakers were mindful of running afoul of the Voting Rights Act. Technology, he said, has also improved the process, and made it more transparent.

Going back several decades before Yaroslavsky’s tenure, courts chronicled the county’s checkered past when it comes to “intentional discrimination.”

In 1990, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Court Judge David V. Kenyon’s ruling that that the County Board of Supervisors discriminated against Latinos when it drew district lines in 1981 in East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley.

The Latino community “has sadly been denied an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice to the Board of Supervisors for this burgeoning county,” Kenyon wrote in his June 4, 1990 decision. The judge didn’t stop there. He went on to chronicle similar gerrymandering in 1959, 1965, 1971 and 1981.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the county’s 1990 appeal in Yolanda Garza v. County of Los Angeles, forcing the board to accept the county’s first Latino-majority district in more than a century and paving the way for Gloria Molina to win the 1st District seat in a special election.

HOW DID THIS COMMISSION COME TO BE?

Well, it almost didn’t. Then state Sen. Ricardo Lara’s SB 958 didn’t sit well with the county when it was introduced in 2016.

Along with taking control of redistricting from the supervisors, it required the political party preferences of the commission’s members to be “as proportional as possible to the the total number of voters who are registered with each political party in the county.”

That contrasted with the citizens commission that sets state Assembly and Senate districts made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. The county sued, claiming the law unconstitutional, unfairly singled out L.A. County, and injected partisanship into officially non-partisan local government. The county said it would leave the panel without any members who aren’t registered with a party.

But a Superior Court judge sided against the county, saying that the law “seeks to create an impartial independent commission” and doesn’t aim to “impose a particular political viewpoint.”

HOW IS THE COMMISSION PICKED?

In September 2020, the county registrar narrowed 741 applications to the 60 most qualified and sent them to the controller, who randomly selected one commissioner for each of the five districts. The controller selected another three. The eight commissioners then selected another six.

The county hired Kraetsch Hartsough’s firm, KH Consulting Group, to run the staff. The firm has has worked with several public sector agencies.

WHAT IS ITS POLITICAL MAKEUP?

Given the law’s emphasis on proportionality, the commission is balanced toward Democrats: Seven Democrats, three Republicans and four who are either No Party Preference or affiliated with other political parties.

“I am happy to say that, although our Commission has a mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents and a diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and age, we have operated in a collegial and constructive manner, with an understanding that our task is bigger than any person, political party, or community,” said Commission Co-Chair Daniel M. Mayeda in a written statement.

 

HOW CAN THEY BE INDEPENDENT — AND NOT POLITICAL?

Among experts there’s a sense that such a body can’t be totally apolitical.

“No matter who does it, it is a political process,” said Yaroslavsky, who in 2000 and 2010 as supervisor for the Third District drew the lines with his fellow supervisors. “The question is who has the most to gain from it.”

There are usually winners and losers, so the process can be contentious.

“It is not enough to pull power away from legislatures,” said Douglas M. Spencer, associate professor of law at the University of Colorado, who manages the blog All About Redistricting. “The institutional design details of commissions are very important and, in general, the more institutionally independent, the more functional the process and fair the outcomes.”

On the state level, Spencer lauded California, which he said worked well in the 2010 redistricting cycle, and the Colorado commission for its work during the current election cycle.

But not all independent commissions “are created equal,” he said. In New York, for example, Spencer said half of the commissioners are appointed by state legislative leaders. In Virginia, half of the members are legislators themselves.

“The results have not been pretty,” he said, noting the New York commission’s inability to agree on a “compromise map” and the Virginia commission’s inability to agree on a firm to generate the map.

At the county level, experts agree that the process is inherently political, but potentially less so than during previous cycles.

“I guarantee you that the commission is well aware of where the incumbent lives, what their districts are,”  said Yaroslavsky. “There’s no way… if you are not aware, you don’t belong on the commissions because you’re not sufficiently curious. How they use that information on a map we’ll see at the end of the day.

Still, a citizens commission could be the better path, some experts say.

“The fact that a commission has been born is a good thing,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “It does take it out of the hands of politicians who like to keep their districts strongly intact.”

It’s often more difficult to criticize local commissions for acting in bad faith because local issues don’t always break down along partisan lines, Spencer said. Such decisions as where to put public transit, or whether to develop a park, don’t always break down along party lines.

ARE MEMBERS UNDER SCRUTINY?

Commission officials say are bracing for the criticism that will inevitably come as the map choices narrow to the final decision.

One key prong of the process will be obtaining a consultant’s analysis of the racial breakdowns of the map before its finalized,  Kraetsch Hartsough said, noting the need to work out any potential legal vulnerabilities on the “front end” rather than back end of the process.

Commissioner Daniel M. Mayeda say that analysis will be the key in determining success of the commission.

“I do anticipate that whatever map we end up adopting will draw criticism from various sectors,” said Mayeda said in a  written statement to this newspaper. “The County is big and complex, and our charge is limited to creating only five districts, so there will be no way to satisfy everyone. But, so long as we’ve done our jobs properly, our final map should be viewed as reasonable and justified. ”

WHERE IS THE PROCESS NOW, AND WHAT’S NEXT?

The commission has held 12 public hearings. The next regular commission meeting is at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13.

The goal so far: Gather input about possible “communities of interest,” defined as a contiguous populations sharing social and economic interests that should be included within a single district.”

For instance, José Cornejo said he’d like to see the entire San Fernando Valley as its own community of interest.

“What I’m hoping for is that the Valley gets its own district,” he said. “We’ve always been divided and split up. Would be nice rather than two, as it always has been divided.”

He pointed to a survey of 500 voters in state Senate District 18 showing that the majority in the survey also preferred “essentially having its own supervisor.” As it is, Sheila Kuehl represents much of the Valley but also represents a robust portion on the westside of LA. And Kathryn Barger represents portions on the northwest end of the Valley.

Elsewhere, one group of residents asked that the commission not place Long Beach in multiple supervisorial districts.  Another seeks to keep together the “Gateway Cities” Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, Norwalk, Downey, Artesia and Cerritos.

The timetable ahead:

This month, the commission will continue to review maps submitted by the public and will be drawing up map ideas based on input from our public hearings.
In late October, the commission will identify several map options.
In November,  the public will weigh in on the options. In December, the commission and its staff will further refine options for further comment. On Dec. 15, the commission will vote on the final map.

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WHAT WILL SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?

Mayeda said the process will be a success if the participants adhere to:

Drawing and adopting a final map of five new supervisorial districts;
Meeting the statutory deadline of Dec.15, 2021;
Complying with every requirement such as timely hearings during which residents get ample input; and
Engaging in a transparent process where all  decisions can be viewed and reviewed by the public.

HOW DO I GET MORE INFORMATION ON THE PROCESS IN L.A. COUNTY?

Here’s how:

For initial public comments on what communities want to stay together in one supervisorial district, go here.
To download free mapping software to submit a map, go here.
For a timeline for what’s happened so far, go here.
For more information on thestatewide citizens redistricign commission, go here
For more information on the commissioners, go here

 

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