News Analysis: California’s political redistricting was all about defining a ‘community’

Even when redistricting is removed from the hands of legislators, subjective decisions must still be made.

Californians who believe objectivity is the only thing that creates fairness in the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundary lines will probably be disappointed with the maps submitted to state elections officials on Monday.

As the experience of the state’s independent Citizens Redistricting Commission showed, even when redistricting is removed from the hands of legislators, subjective decisions must still be made. Several of the 14 commissioners, who signed off on the final maps on Monday, candidly admitted they had no choice but to pick winners and losers.

“We made hundreds of hard choices,” said Commissioner Russell Yee, an Oakland Republican. “And we tried to spread the pain and gain, as thoughtfully and as fairly as we could.”

The commissioners did so by embracing two of the most far-reaching — and ultimately subjective — redistricting rules added to the California Constitution by the 2008 ballot measure that wrested redistricting away from the California Legislature.


One requires that districts comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to empower voters in communities that have historically been discriminated against. The other puts self-defined groups of Californians, living in “communities of interest,” on equal footing with cities and counties when it comes to drawing the lines.

On the new political maps, the number of counties split into different Assembly, Senate and congressional districts will more than double from the maps drawn a decade ago. There will be a sizable uptick in the splitting of cities, too, in favor of what the commission judged to be important communities.

“We know that in order to please and honor the desires of some, we knew that we will disappoint others,” said Trena Turner, a Democratic commissioner from Stockton.

Should the maps ultimately withstand public and legal scrutiny, the precedents set this year could significantly expand the power of future line drawers to choose which communities are at the top of the state’s political pecking order.

Of the four highest-ranking criteria for political maps, only two are clear-cut: the districts must be almost equal in population and they must be contiguous, including only areas that are geographically connected.

The other two criteria — the Voting Rights Act and communities of interest — have a shared history, said Eric McGhee, an elections researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Advocates for the rights of Latino, Black and Asian voters, in particular, were skeptical of promises through the years to “reform” the state’s redistricting process.


“Adding communities of interest as one of the criteria,” McGhee said, “was a way of providing extra protection for racial and ethnic minorities.”

Unlike the Voting Rights Act — in which the legal standard involves proving the existence of racially polarized voting patterns that unfairly deny minority groups a share of political power — a community of interest can be defined any way its members might choose.

“It’s something that has a lot of wiggle room,” McGhee said.

Both standards caused ripple effects in the maps over the course of the 12 weeks the commission spent drawing lines, but the effort to address voting discrimination was the most significant. The commission hired outside legal counsel to determine whether districts clustered around parts of Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley had to be drawn in ways that enhanced the political clout of Latino voters. Several others were drawn to boost the importance of Asian American voters.

The end result? Twenty-two of the state’s new 80 state Assembly districts will now have a Latino citizen voting-age population greater than 50%. So, too, will 11 of the 40 state Senate districts and 16 of the state’s 52 districts in the House of Representatives.

“This represents an increase of six Assembly districts, four Senate districts and six congressional districts from the current map of California’s legislative districts, despite California losing one congressional seat,” Commission Chair Isra Ahmad, an unaffiliated voter from San Jose, said during a news conference Monday.

Her fellow commissioners applauded.

Violations of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) are one of the most common reasons for courts to overturn political maps. Whether the commission drew just enough, or more than the minimum, may never be known — in part because the panel refused to make public its analysis of racially polarized voting trends. Instead, only broad outlines were released of regions where discrimination is believed to have existed.


The final maps, though, sent a powerful message about the commission’s view: The best way to withstand a legal challenge is to draw as many VRA districts as possible.

“We all felt we were sort of safeguarding this process,” said Commissioner Derric Taylor, a Republican from Los Angeles.

Even as their work came to an end just before Christmas, commissioners were still seeking regions across the state in which they could add more districts drawn to strengthen Latino voting rights. Future California commissioners may feel compelled to follow the same process.

The same may be true in the emphasis on communities of interest, a term defined in different ways from one state to another. California’s definition came from rulings of the state’s Supreme Court, said Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy Republican donor who helped draft and bankroll the ballot measures that created the independent citizens’ commission.

“No matter what I write down on a page, the ultimate definition of what this thing means is what the California Supreme Court says it means,” Munger said in an interview last week.

The redistricting commission received more than 36,000 public comments on their proposals. Some of the input was in the form of alternative maps, made with online tools provided by the commission, on which individuals could draw their communities as they saw fit.


“It’s ultimately the commission’s job to determine what communities have been put at a disadvantage and how it can right those historical wrongs,” said Samuel Garrett-Pate, managing director of external affairs of Equality California, the state’s most powerful LGBTQ advocacy group.

In some regions, Equality California allied itself with groups such as the Black Census and Redistricting Hub and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to offer detailed district lines drawn by professional mappers. Commissioners frequently referred to those maps during public meetings, often suggesting that parts of the interest groups’ maps might be better than their own, although none of the interest groups got everything they asked for.

Critics of the commission, most notably a few Republican activists, cried foul. Commissioners, however, said they worked together to make sure the new boundaries were proper.

“We all worked to ensure that all communities have fair, just and equitable representation,” said Commissioner Pedro Toledo, a Petaluma resident who’s unaffiliated with any political party.

And in its embrace of a broad definition of what counts as a community, the panel served notice that it believed at least some amount of subjectivity is a strength, not a liability.

“I think that’s the beauty of the redistricting commission,” said Commissioner Patricia Sinay, a San Diego Democrat. “You have 14 individuals who are stepping up to serve their state. And without prior training, we all brought our own experiences, and we brought our own reality.”