California’s political future lies in how voting maps are redrawn

By Darry Sragow, Special to CalMatters | 

California political insiders predictably are riveted by the recall election just a couple of months away. But the real action, the action that will determine how California is governed in the critical decade ahead, is elsewhere. 

Serious political players know that the battle with enduring consequences will be over the yet-to-be-redrawn maps of the Assembly, Senate and Congressional districts at the state level and of city councils and county boards of supervisors at the local level. 

The stakes are incredibly high. For the first time in history, California will lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Whether the Republicans can hold onto the four seats they took from the Democrats here in 2020 will have a significant effect on which party is in control of the House in the next term. 

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission agreed to ask the state Supreme Court to extend for one last time the deadline to finalize the new legislative and congressional maps. Expecting that the commission will receive census data in August, commissioners sought permission to set a new deadline of Jan. 14 to complete their work. 

If the commission finishes its work by that date, legal challenges could emerge that lead to more delay. At the moment, however, the 2022 primary is scheduled for June 7. 

There also is a question of whether the Jan. 14 deadline will allow for adequate public comment, taking into account that those comments and the commission’s work will need to take place over the holiday season. 

The tight schedule raises questions about whether candidates will have sufficient time to assess their prospects in redrawn districts and file to run, and whether county election officials will have sufficient time to accommodate the newly drawn lines. This entails redrawing precinct lines and accommodating new districts at the local as well as state level. 

As detailed in the Redistricting Special Edition of the California Target Book, Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties saw little population growth over the last decade, while the number of people living in Kern, San Bernardino and especially Riverside counties grew significantly. Los Angeles County is home to 14 full or partial congressional districts, and starting next year, each should have a population of around 761,000 residents. Collectively, however, those districts fall short by roughly 574,000 residents. It is almost certain that the one seat California must give up will come from there. 

The new district lines will need to reflect the dramatic demographic shifts in California over the last decade.

In the state Senate, no one appears in obvious peril of losing his or her seat, but retirements required by the state’s limit on how many terms someone can serve (as well as plain old fatigue) may leave a significant number of districts without an incumbent. 

In the Assembly, the need to create Voting Rights Act districts (legislative districts with 50% racial minority voting age residents) in Los Angeles County and elsewhere and to tackle the population deficit in Los Angeles will pose significant challenges for the redistricting commission. But with statewide voter registration at roughly 46% Democrat and 24% Republican, no matter how the legislative lines are drawn, it will be tough for the Republicans to pick up enough seats in 2022 to erase the Democrats’ two-thirds hold on both houses in Sacramento.. 

As consequential as the outcome of the recall election is, whose voices will be heard in the halls of power for the next 10 years is of paramount importance. The name of the game between now and the 2022 elections will be redistricting.


Darry Sragow, an attorney and professor of political science, is publisher of the California Target Book, Sragow has previously written about the replacement for Kamala Harris’ Senate seat and no party preference voters

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