Why California politicians will keep drawing their own election districts

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SAMEEA KAMAL | CALMATTERS

California’s push to have independent panels — not politicians — draw election districts has floundered into a more piecemeal approach. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the most ambitious bill passed by state lawmakers, Assembly Bill 1248, which called for independent redistricting commissions in every city and county across the state with more than 300,000 residents, and every school or community college district with more than 500,000. He also blocked Senate Bill 52, requiring independent panels in large charter cities, which would have applied to the scandal-plagued Los Angeles City Council.

It appoints some members of the existing redistricting commission, and last year, a leaked recording revealed city councilmembers strategizing, in a conversation packed with racist comments, about how to get lines drawn in their favor. Newsom did sign two less sweeping redistricting bills that authors put forth in case the broader effort failed, but supporters were still bitterly disappointed. “In Los Angeles we need an independent and unbiased commission to help mend the lack of trust between the community and its government,” Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Culver City Democrat and author of AB 1248, and Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat and author of SB 52, said in a joint statement. “We will continue to do work to keep communities whole and allow communities to choose their elected representatives, rather than the elected officials choosing their voters.” In his Oct. 7 veto message for AB 1248, Newsom said he shared the “goal of ensuring community control over the redistricting process.” But he cited budget uncertainty, saying the bill would create a “state-reimbursable mandate in the tens of millions and should therefore be considered in the annual budget process.”

Common Cause, a good government group and sponsor of AB 1248, noted in a press release, however, that the bill’s cost wouldn’t be a factor in the state budget until closer to the next census in 2030, which kicks off the next round of redistricting. “We’re deeply confused and frustrated, why the governor would choose to veto a proven democracy reform that provided California an opportunity to not just eliminate gerrymandering in the state but also lead the nation in pro-democracy reform,” Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director for California Common Cause, told CalMatters. “It’s an enormous missed opportunity.” Newsom did sign AB 764, the fail-safe measure also introduced by Bryan and sponsored by Common Cause that seeks to address ambiguities in current redistricting laws regardless of who does the mapping, such as explicitly banning consideration of incumbency, and increasing standards for public engagement.

He also signed SB 314, by Sacramento Democratic Sen. Angelique Ashby, that establishes a citizens redistricting commission for the Sacramento County board of supervisors, and AB 34, by Anaheim Democratic Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, that creates a similar commission in Orange County. The two counties join a handful of others that are either required by previous state laws or have chosen to do redistricting through an independent panel.

In Los Angeles, there’s also an effort by a city council committee to establish an independent redistricting commission through a measure on the November 2024 ballot. And in San Francisco, where chaos over map drawing was brought on by what some called a “toxic political culture,” there’s an effort to bring the city’s independent redistricting commission — established prior to the state version — up to date with best practices. Redistricting is the process of redrawing election maps after every Census to make sure each district has about the same number of people, ensuring no one’s vote gets diluted.

A statewide independent commission has drawn state Senate, state Assembly and U.S. House districts since 2010, taking that power from the Legislature, so they could no longer draw their own districts. But bringing independent panels to local redistricting has been a start and stop process. In 2019, Newsom vetoed a bill by Redondo Beach Democratic Sen. Ben Allen that would have required counties with more than 400,000 residents to set up independent redistricting commissions. His reason for vetoing the bill then was that local jurisdictions were already allowed to establish independent commissions, and that it should be considered in the budget process. “We are left just flabbergasted that the governor continues to make this baffling choice,” Mehta Stein said. “The forces that have been fighting against voting rights and against redistricting reform have been pouring money into that effort for decades. And the pro-democracy side of the argument has to be willing to put its money where its mouth is. We can’t build a better, more inclusive democracy for free.

It will cost money and it’s worth it.” But for some, the veto of AB 1248 was a win. The California State Association of Counties, Rural County Representatives of California and Urban Counties of California opposed the bill unless amended, because they were concerned about the resources the bill would require. Patrick Blacklock, president and CEO of the Rural County Representatives of California said the mandate should only happen with a corresponding budget allocation. “Without this kind of support, we are concerned that counties will be set up for failure, and such a failure would only serve to validate public distrust in the redistricting process and in our democratic systems that are already under intense public scrutiny,” Blacklock said in a statement to CalMatters.

Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said that the veto wasn’t necessarily surprising since redistricting can be a controversial and sensitive subject — especially at the local level. But he did find Newsom’s reason for the veto surprising. Still, while the lawmakers and sponsors haven’t said whether they’ll try to reintroduce the bills next session, Li noted that it took multiple tries to get an independent redistricting commission at the state level, too. “Independent commissions are the wave of the future,” he said. “Even though these bills failed, I don’t think this will be the end of efforts to mandate stronger, better systems.” “California has provided a lot of evidence that, if they’re well designed, they do work and do improve representation and results for voters — particularly for voters who haven’t had a seat at the table.”

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