Historic Redrawing of Our Legislative Districts — Citizen Input Wanted

A citizens' commission wants to hear from you — now — on the new district boundaries for our representatives in Congress and the state legislature. You can send comments or attend tonight's public hearing.

El Cerrito and Kensington's representation in Congress and the state legislature is being reshaped by a sweeping redrawing of the state's voting districts.

In a radical departure from the past, the commision is charge of the process wants to hear from citizens about where the new district lines should be drawn. The 14-member panel has drawn up proposed new boundaries and wants feedback by tomorrow, June 28. A public hearing will be held tonight in San Francisco. Citizens can also submit written comments.

For the Congressional district, El Cerrito and Kensington's current U.S. Representative is Democrat John Garamendi, whose sprawling 10th Congressional District includes parts of four counties and looks something like a headless Popeye, with two broad arms, a narrow waist and two billowing legs. El Cerrito and Kensington sit in a small bulge on his district’s westernmost limb.

The proposed new “Contra Costa” Congressional district for El Cerrito and Kensington is more compact and regular in shape, something like a parallelogram. It includes part of Garamendi’s current district and parts of at least two others, George Miller’s 7th District and Jerry McNerney’s 11th District.

For the state senate, El Cerrito and Kensington are currently represented by Senator Mark DeSaulnier’s 7th state senate district based in Walnut Creek, but the proposed “Oakland-Richmond” new district would put El Cerrito and Kensington into a district that includes substantial overlap with Senator Loni Hancock’s current 9th district.

In the state assembly, Oakland-based Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner represents El Cerrito and Kensington, and the proposed new “West Contra Costa” district that would include El Cerrito and Kensington retains a substantial portion of Skinner’s current 14th assembly district. 

The boundary revision, known as redistricting, happens every 10 years following the latest census results, but this year's process is signficantly different.

In the past, members of the state legislature decided — usually out of public view — where to draw the lines and often did so with the intent to carve out politically safe districts. Such political manipulation, known as gerrymandering, often resulted in irregular, far-flung territories resembling the pattern of tiles played on a Scrabble board.

But in November of 2008, the state's voters narrowly approved a measure establishing the California Citizen's Redistricting Commission to conduct the process for the state assembly and senate districts, and for the state Board of Equalization, which handles taxation issues.

The measure left Congressional districts in the hands of the legislators but subject to new restrictions, including maintaining neighborhoods and "communities of interest" as much as possible. Voters later approved another ballot measure in the November 2010 election transferring the Congressional districts to the new citizens commission.

“This is the first time in California history that ordinary citizens can have a seat at the table when it comes to redistricting,” said Connie Galambos Malloy, a commission member from Oakland who works for Urban Habitat and holds a master’s in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley. “This is really … a historic moment.”

After two years of work, the commission approved its first draft of the maps for new congressional and state districts on June 10. The plans show new boundaries for California's 53 congressional districts, 40 state senate districts and 80 state assembly districts, as well as districts for the Board of Equalization.

Maps of current and proposed new districts are available on the commission’s Web site.

Two more drafts will be drawn up, but Malloy said the third draft is only for refinements. She said now is the time to seek fundamental adjustments during the commission’s deliberations for Draft 2. The final maps must be certified by the commission by Aug. 15.

Tonight’s public hearing takes place at Cowell Theater at Fort Mason in San Francisco from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Instructions for those who wish to speak are here. The public can also submit comments and testimony before the 5 p.m. deadline tomorrow, June 28, by email to votersfirstact@crc.ca.gov, or by fax to 916-651-5711.

Frequently Asked Questions About Redistricting

What is redistricting?

Redistricting is the process of redrawing electoral boundaries to account for changes in population that might make districts unequal in the number of residents who are represented. The number of congressional districts in each state does not change with redistricting.

Why is it happening now?

Redistricting is done every ten years as required by federal law. It is done after new information on population is released in the census. The results of the 2010 census were released this spring.

Which districts are being redrawn?

The commission is redrawing congressional districts, state Assembly districts, state Senate districts, and state Board of Equalization districts.

Who created the commission?

The commission was created by the Proposition 11 ballot initiative, which voters narrowly passed in the November of 2008 election. Previously, the California Legislature was empowered to draw the boundaries for both state and congressional districts. They were not required to meet publicly to carry out the process.

Why should redistricting matter to me?

New boundaries can mean new elected leaders, sometimes from a different party than the previous representative of an area. It also means that different communities of interest might be represented differently. In their redistricting proposal the commission is required to respect the geographic integrity of any city, county, city and county, local neighborhood, or local community of interest.

What exactly is a community of interest?

The commission took the phrase from California's Constitution, which defines it this way:

A community of interest is a contiguous population that shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation. Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process. Communities of interest shall not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.

Did the commission consider the political implications of redrawing districts?

The criteria the commission looked at specifically did not include data on what the new districts would mean in terms of voter registration.  The commission was not asked to attempt to maintain any kind of existing balance between Democratic and Republican seats.  The commission website describes the difference between the commission's work and past effort this way: "Historically, legislators drew the district boundaries in closed meetings, often favoring incumbents or their own party."

Who is on the commission?

There are 14 commission members from all over the stateFive of them are registered Democrats, five are Republicans, and four are decline-to-state voters. The full bios of the members can be read here.

Citizens from throughout the state were invited to apply for the commission and were asked to provide information on their backgrounds and to answer essay questions on why they wanted to serve. Three independent auditors from the Bureau of State Audits narrowed those applications down to 120 people: 40 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and 40 decline-to-state voters.

The 120 selected by the bureau were interviewed and the auditors then cut the group in half to 60. Those 60 were vetted by the California Legislature's leaders, which were given the right to remove up to 24 without giving any specific reason. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the legislators did remove 24 candidates.

Contributing to this report were Dan Abendschein, J.J. Barrow and Monica Lam.

Clarification: The original version of this article noted that the responsibility for drawing new Congressional districts was left in the hands of the legislature in the original November 2008 measure approved by voters to establish the California Citizen's Redistricting Commission. It did not note that redrawing the Congressional districts was transferred to the citizens commission by a later ballot measure approved by the state's voters in November 2010. The article has been revised to incorporate this information.

Al Miller June 27, 2011 at 07:05 PM
Thank you Charles, Dan, J.J. and Monica for this informative article about the current redistricting process. However, I think there is another "shoe waiting to drop." That will happen when the state senate districts get renumbered. I believe that because of the state senate term length of four years, and the fact that some senate districts elect senators in even years and some in odd years, if the senate district El Cerrito and Kensington end up in has it's number change from an odd number to an even number, we could find ourselves among those senate districts that do not have an actual senator for two years. If this happens, I believe a senator from a neighboring senate district will somehow be assigned the task of "supervising " our senate district and providing constituent services for us until we are able to elect our own senator. I'm making this rather poorly worded comment in the hopes that someone better informed will take the time to fill in the details and help develop the "wisdom of the crowd" so that collectively we can understand where we will be at the end of the redistricting tunnel we are now traveling through.
Charles Burress June 27, 2011 at 09:33 PM
I hope someone takes Al up on his suggestion/request for more information about whether we could end up as an orphan state-senate district for two years.
Betty Buginas June 28, 2011 at 03:03 PM
Richmond is not happy with this plan. From Councilman Tom Butt's E-forum: Mayor McLaughlin and Councilmember Beckles, who both abstained on the vote last week regarding congressional redistricting have changed their minds and now oppose the plan. Like most people, including me, they did not understand at the time that the current plan would split Richmond in half. Following is an email from the mayor to the Redistricting Commission: Dear Commissioners, Although I am not taking a position regarding in which district Richmond is placed, I strongly object to dividing Richmond and strongly support redrawing the lines in a way that keeps Richmond unified. Community ties run deep in Richmond. One of our themes for ongoing community development is: One Richmond! I thank you for your attention to our concerns and look forward to a redrawing of the lines. Sincerely, Gayle McLaughlin Mayor, City of Richmond, CA


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