Mapping the Desert's Electoral Future

Old and New State Senate Districts | Screenshot from California Citizens' Redistricting Commission Website

If it wasn't for the accidental creation of the Salton Sea 106 years ago, people who live at the north and south ends of the Salton Sink might feel like they had more in common. But since that lake's creation, residents have divided the once-distinct Salton Sink into two somewhat arbitrarily defined valleys: the Coachella in the north, where old-school affluent conservatives now maintain narrowing control despite an influx of younger, more liberal, mostly Latino voters; and the Imperial Valley in the south, a solidly blue enclave.

As part of California's first non-partisan redistricting effort, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission last week released a series of "first draft" maps describing proposed Congressional, State Senate and Assembly districts, as well as districts for seats on the State Board of Equalization. Though the draft maps are being hailed by some as successes due to the fact that they've made no one happy, the draft maps -- if enacted -- would reinforce the separation between the Coachella and Imperial valleys, at least when it comes to their elected representation in Sacramento and DC.

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Under the terms of Prop 11, passed by California voters in 2008, redistricting of state legislative districts was put in the hands of the non-partisan Commission. An original draft of the proposiotion included Congressional districts, but that language was quietly removed. It took another initiative, last year's Proposition 20, to empower the Commission with authority over Congressional districts. The Commission was formed in response to increasing frustration with "gerrymandered" districts designed to make things safer for incumbents. The idea is that a body whose makeup is strictly regulated to avoid partisan bias will more closely hew to the ideals behind drawing up Congressional and other districts: districts should be of approximately equal population, they should be "compact" in order to more accurately represent geographic communities, and they should not be drawn up so as to deprive any group of people their rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Congressional Districts

The 51st Congressional District -- a seat currently occupied by Bob Filner, who announced last week that he would be running for Mayor of San Diego in the upcoming election -- is often pointed to as an example of gerrymandering. The district comprises all of Imperial County, then runs along the border to San Diego. The coastal portion of the district is connected to the interior by a narrow strip only a mile or so wide in some spots along the border south of the San Ysidro Mountains. The first draft of the redrawn district -- labeled "ISAND" in the draft -- is not particularly more compact, but it does expand the district's narrow border ribbon to encompass about half of the Interstate 8 corridor within San Diego County. The upshot will likely be to add more conservative voters, possibly making the district lean slightly less leftward.

The 45th Congressional, now represented by the GOP's Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs, will have Desert Hot Springs added to it, as well as the cities of Banning, Beaumont, Calimesa, Hemet and San Jacinto. Though Bono Mack has been walking a bit of a tightrope of late between passing muster with the Tea Party elements in the GOP and raising funds from her gay-friendly base in Palm Springs, her reconstituted district should be relatively comfortable. Other desert Representatives may have a tougher road ahead. The 41st's Jerry Lewis, who serves as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, would have most of his district and most of the adjacent 25th combined into a new district that would stretch from the Riverside County line north nearly to Lake Tahoe. What remains of the 41st would be significantly more Democratic-leaning, providing a challenge to the deep-red Lewis. As for the remainder of the 25th, its representative -- staunch conservative Buck McKeon -- will have to get used to campaigning entirely in Los Angeles County. The new desert congressional district, likely one of the least-densely populated in the country, will almost certainly send a far-right Representative to DC.

State Districts

Creative Commons photo by Denise Cross

The current State Senate District 40 is about as gerrymandered as the 51st Congressional. It includes all of Imperial County and has just about the same strip along the border to San Diego, but it also adds the southern half of Riverside County east of Indio, and a narrow strip of the Coachella Valley running between Indio and Cathedral City up to Desert Hot Springs. The redrawn district still includes all of Imperial County, but cuts off at the Riverside County line -- a blow to those who prefer unified representation within the Salton Basin. The Coachella Valley is no longer split between the 37th and 40th State Senate districts in the first draft, but combined into a new "CCHTM" district with most of the rest of Riverside County, excepting the Riverside-Moreno Valley area, which makes up its own Senate district, and a swath of rural land between San Gorgonio Pass and Menifee, which joins the Morongo Basin and the City of San Bernardino in yet another district. The result: Mecca would share its state Senator with Temecula, while the residents of Bombay Beach, just a few miles down the road, would share theirs with El Cajon.

The effect would likely be a gain for conservatives in the State Senate, what with conservative-trending Coachella Valley still paired with the largely white communities along the Interstate 15 corridor, though it's unclear whether State Senator Bill Emmerson, who now represents the district, would still live in the redrawn one. Meanwhile Imperial County's majority Latino, increasingly Blue vote would be diluted by inclusion in the same district as solidly conservative San Diego suburbs. The Imperial Valley is now part of a State Senate district so securely Democratic that Juan Vargas won there in 2010 despite nasty allegations of scandal between Vargas and Filner in the 2006 Congressional race. That may not be the case if more of East San Diego County is added to the mix.

It's worth noting that Imperial County has approximately the same population as the Temecula-area cities with which the Coachella Valley has tentatively been grouped in the first draft State Senate districts. Putting the Imperial and Coachella valleys in the same Senate district wouldn't seem to be infeasible from a "one person, one vote" standard. It would certainly be preferable from a compactness standard. The result would very likely be a secure district for moderate Democratic candidates, and so a person's support or opposition to the idea of a State Senate Seat For Salton Sink is determined by his or her politics.

The draft Assembly districts for the Salton Basin are substantially similar to the State Senate proposals. Imperial County would be lumped in with southeastern San Diego County in an Assembly district -- dubbed "IMSAND" -- that diverges from the ISAND Senate District only in a few areas in its suburban San Diego margins. It would be a radical transformation of the current 80th Assembly District, omitting all of the 80th's current coverage of Riverside County. At present, the 80th -- whose vote has trended increasingly liberal over the last decade, with a pro-choice, pro-marriage rights, environmentalist-leaning Coachella Democrat V. Manuel Perez taking the reins from the GOP in 2008 -- includes almost all of the Coachella Valley (aside from a gerrymandered lobe of the 64th), and all of Imperial County. The 64th Assembly District is a truly odd horseshoe. represented by GOP Caucus Chair Brian Nestande, it encompasses Moreno Valley and East Riverside, the outskirts of Temecula and a swath of alpine wilderness connecting the rest of the district to Palm Desert.

If current drafts of Salton Basin's Assembly districts end up being approved, Nestande and Perez may well be running against one another in the next election, with a closely contested race within the new Imperial and Southern San Diego County Assembly district. If the GOP is smart enough to nominate a Latino in that "IMSAND" Assembly district, it could be a very close race indeed.

This is, of course, only the first round of draft maps coming out of the commission. The process on the books allows for two more iterations with public comment along the way. Major changes to the maps at this point seem unlikely, but what changes happen will likely be driven by that very same public comment.

Send your comments, if you have them, to votersfirstact@crc.ca.gov, or mail them to the Citizens Redistricting Commission, 901 P Street, Suite 154-A, Sacramento, CA 95814. The draft maps can be found at the Commission's website.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday at 10 a.m. He lives in Palm Springs.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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