Redistricting Hurdles in L.A. County & California, Explained

Barbara Pritchard/FEMA Photo Library

As competition for a viable redistricting plan heats up amongst Los Angeles County Supervisors, a starkly different scenario has already played itself out at the state-wide level, hailed as historic by some, and illegal by others.

Both, however, may share the same rocky road ahead.

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A month ago, for the first time in California history, the district lines for the State Senate, Assembly, Congress and Board of Equalization were drawn by an independent commission of citizens, free from the control of state legislators.

The Economist, among many others, rejoiced at the highly democratic process. "Could become the model for the rest of America," read the magazine.

The old model of letting legislators draw their own district lines was effectively broken -- a practice that had allowed for only seven California seats to change hands from one party to the other over the course of the last 612 races. Gerrymandering was no more.

But just last week, the model, as expected, ran into trouble.

The first legal challenge to the yeoman-like work done by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission was filed in state Supreme Court, an effort to block the newly drawn Senate maps from going into effect. The same group bringing the challenge is also trying to collect enough signatures (504,760) to put the issue on the June ballot.

While commission members declined to comment on the likelihood of the court-case succeeding, they remained optimistic their maps would stand the test of time..

"It's been over a month now, and it looks awfully good," said Peter Yao, one of the 14 members of the redistricting commission. "We have no hind-sights about the map."

"I think this has lit a fire," said Jeanne Raya, another one of the commission members. "I'm hopeful it's just the beginning."

After an exhaustive selection process, the commission members set about on the arduous 8-month task of redrawing California's districts. Raya called it a "second full-time job" -- one that included "10- to 12-day roadtrips and very little sleep."

The response was staggering, she said. "We had more than 20,000 e-mails, and thousands came to the public hearings," Raya said. "It'll take awhile, but people have had a little taste of the honey, and they'll keep going forward and demand that cities and counties do the same thing."

For now, however, cities and counties continue to do it the old-fashioned way. And, the citizens commission is by no means out of the woods. In Arizona, for instance, after a similar commission drew district lines in 2000, its maps "were fought over for seven years in the courts," according to The Economist.

Leo Estrada, a current UCLA professor of Urban Planning, was an expert witness in the 1990 court case, when federal judges ruled the L.A. County supervisors had diluted Latino voting power by gerrymandering districts. It paved the way for the first Latino-majority district in L.A. County, and the election of Gloria Molina.

"Independent redistricting councils are found all over the U.S.," Estrada said. "There is considerable debate as to whether they are better or worse. In California, the IRC did a reasonably good job with the Congressional map; a somewhat mixed picture with the Assembly map; and a Senate map that is sometimes unexplainable. So, I would say that the IRC gets a mixed grade in terms of the outcome. Overall, their performance is judged by whether it is better than what politicians would have done and most believe that an IRC results in better overall maps."

"I absolutely see a broad application," Yao said, "not only in the area of redistricting, but anything we need to change in terms of how we govern ourselves."

Which brings us to Los Angeles County. It still lets its board-members draw their own lines.

Around the same time the citizens commission wrapped up its work a month ago, LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sent the local redistricting scene into a tizzy.

"A blistering broadside," the LA Times called his blog post. "... making it extremely unlikely any such plan could pass and raising the possibility the politicians will fail to adopt new districts."

Yaroslavsky denounced the redistricting plans by two of his cohorts, both calling for a second Latino-majority district. Suddenly, it seemed the supervisors could be headed to a repeat of 1990.

The supervisors are deadlocked.

Four votes are needed to approve a redistricting plan at the September 27 meeting, or else the decision will be made by a committee of countywide officials: Sheriff Lee Baca, Assessor John R. Noguez and District Attorney Steve Cooley.

And, while lawsuits brew at the state-wide level, they could be on their way for LA County too, depending on the outcome.

Daniel Watson is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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