The Art of Redistricting

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China’s best-known military strategist, Sun Tzu, coined the phrase that every battle is won or lost before it is waged.

In American politics, there’s no better manifestation of this belief than the process of redistricting.

Last month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors began the arm-wrestling match of redrawing political lines for countywide election districts with a battle over who should preside over a subcommittee that would define the process.

On its face, the drawing of new districts to match changing census data is to keep things even — the age-old “one-man, one-vote” concept. The idea is to keep every supervisor’s district representing the same amount of residents.

But a host of other factors come into play, at the congressional, state and local level. And how the process plays out can literally determine the fate of politicians because of how differing blocks of support — both ethnic and city-based — are drawn.

Typically, state legislatures get to redraw the lines. But after years of producing districts that overly protected incumbents, California voters approved Proposition 11 in 2008 to set up a residents committee to redraw the next lines.

But counties still get to do their own thing.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janet Nguyen had appointed herself and Supervisor Bill Campbell to work on a redistricting subcommittee.

Nguyen is one of two current county supervisors who will have to run for re-election under these new lines, and there is much speculation about how she will handle the redrawing of lines in central Orange County, which involve Latino and Vietnamese power bases.

The other supervisor who will have to live under newly drawn districts is the recently elected Shawn Nelson, who represents North Orange County. He has already voiced concerns about Nguyen’s influence over the process and has called for a scaling back of the process, which he wants to be very public.

At one point, there was talk of just putting staffers in charge of the process. Yet on the fifth floor, there’s no such thing as an apolitical process. It should be remembered that many chiefs of staff to supervisors harbor designs of their own political futures. Right now, for example, Nelson’s chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau, is an Orange city councilman.

Supervisors at their most recent meeting treaded carefully into the minefield, agreeing only to put out a request for proposals for a vendor to begin to work with census data to figure out what the next five supervisors’ districts could look like based on demographic trends.

So the first round of redistricting action will revolve around finding a consultant to figure out those census trends and come back to the board at a later date. Then, the supervisors will be expected to have figured out how to structure the panel that will draw the new lines.

The whole process should make for some interesting viewing … and jockeying.



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