This week, Orange County supervisors are gearing up to redraw maps that will affect the political power and representation of local communities for the next decade.
Every 10 years, after official population numbers are finalized from the U.S. Census, all levels of government redraw the district boundaries that decide how voters, neighborhoods and cities are grouped together and represented.
It’s called redistricting, and local officials are required to decide by late next year how to rearrange the lines.
Depending on how the maps are drawn, the decision could have a long-term impact on whether local Republicans maintain their majority on the county Board of Supervisors, which decides how to prioritize billions of tax dollars each year between law enforcement, public health, parks and other services.
The upcoming special election to replace Michelle Steel as the coastal 2nd District supervisor will help determine who controls this decision on maps.
Redistricting has emerged as a key driving force behind the GOP and Democrat battle to win in the 2nd district supervisor seat. The outcome of that race will determine if Republicans have a 4-to-1 supermajority during the redistricting process, or if Democrats pick up a seat and trim that down to a 3-to-2 simply majority.
Among the curiosities noted by local officials is whether Santa Ana and Anaheim will get combined together into one district, instead of being separated in the current districts. Such an approach could end the current grouping of Vietnamese-American voters in Little Saigon with Latino voters in Santa Ana, while also helping Republican efforts to maintain a majority on the Board of Supervisors by concentrating Democrat voters into a single new district.
Some say the supervisors themselves shouldn’t pick the lines, and should instead have an independent commission draw the lines – like the process California voters approved in 2008 for state and Congressional districts.
“There have been about seven states in the country that have decided that we cannot allow politicians to pick their own districts, that this is really asking for trouble,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University.
“I think the state offers a really good model of an independent commission to draw those lines. Otherwise you end up with situations where elected officials who desperately want to get reelected pick the voters instead of the voters picking the officials.”
The independent commission process is “akin to choosing a jury, and then these people draw the districts based on nonpartisan concerns,” Smoller added. “Even if the five supervisors were absolutely pure – right up there with Mother Theresa – it always taints the process when they’re drawing their own districts.”
It’s not yet clear what kind of public outreach the county will seek on the redrawing of district lines.
County staff are working on an outreach plan that will go to county supervisors for approval early in the new year, said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson.
Local watchdog Shirley Grindle also wants an independent commission to decide on the district lines.
“I definitely think none of the supervisors should be involved in any way with redistricting,” she told Voice of OC in an email Monday.
“Out of the 3 million people in OC, there is no excuse for them not to have an independent commission. The problem is that the [supervisors] are the only ones who have the legal authority to appoint commissioners (just like they did with the Campaign Finance and Ethics Commission),” she added.
“So what I did was draft a strict set of requirements for members of the Commission and that is what they should do now. Requirements of an Independent Commission should be: 1) not a member of the Republican or Democrat Central Committees locally, state or federal, 2) a registered voter, 3) not related to any Supervisor or part of any Supervisor’s campaign committee — to start with.”
An early step in the redistricting effort kicks off today, when county supervisors are slated to hire Cal State Fullerton to consult with the map lines and public outreach.
Under the $75,000 proposal, the university will help with reviewing proposed districts submitted to the county, assist with meetings and outreach efforts, create data maps, and will “work side-by-side with the County redistricting team,” according to the county staff report.
The new districts will be in effect for the next statewide primary election in June 2022, and have to be finalized by county supervisors no later than December 15, 2021.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.