One of the world’s largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam is also one of the most-watched voting groups in Orange County and the U.S. during election years.
This year, the decennial act of redrawing electoral district maps – thus redistributing an area’s voter representation – faces unique hurdles and unwillingness in some cities and school districts within the span of Orange County’s Little Saigon.
At the heart of Little Saigon, for example, City of Westminster officials are in the process of redistricting but have less time than other cities. They’re chasing two types of district maps, faced with two dueling scenarios pending the outcome of a special election they set into motion for this summer which could create a brand new council seat and voting district.
Meanwhile, elected officials at the Garden Grove Unified School District will decide whether to skip the redistricting process entirely at today’s meeting. Click here for information on how to access it.
In November last year, officials at the Westminster School District voted unanimously to forego this redistricting cycle, claiming an exemption to the process on the basis that the district’s population changed minimally upon review of its most recent, 2020 population census numbers.
Council members overseeing the City of Garden Grove – an integral organ of Little Saigon – also at one point tried to skip the process last year for a similar reason but ultimately pulled a proposal to do so following a wave of pushback from residents, activists and community groups.
[Read: Garden Grove Officials’ Push to Skip Redistricting Altogether Jolts Alarm in City Spanning Little Saigon]
These local bodies are opting to skip redistricting on the argument that their jurisdictions’ populations haven’t changed substantially either since the last census count or the last time they drew their districts.
On the Garden Grove Unified School District agenda for today’s board meeting, “it is recommended that the Board adopt Resolution No. 14 which finds that the trustee area boundaries do not require adjustment based on the results of the 2020 census …”
Similarly in the City of Garden Grove, officials argued that no redrawn maps were necessary due to the minimal population change per the most recent census results.
These are maps that in many cases have been in place for years and would bind the community to the same district voting lines for the next 10.
Garden Grove Councilmember Kim Nguyen was one official in town who initially supported forgoing the redistricting process last year.
After all, Nguyen said in a Monday phone interview, the city’s current district map is one she proposed and got approved back in 2016, when the city had to move from citywide elections to district elections after losing a voting rights lawsuit which argued the town’s Latino voting power on the east side had been diluted.
Nguyen, who is both Vietnamese and Latina, became the city’s first Latina council member after her election in 2016. Her map, adopted in 2016, was created alongside a coalition of community groups. Nguyen’s now running for Orange County Supervisor in the board’s new District 2.
Garden Grove’s voting-age population was nearly 45% Asian American and Pacific Islander, 27% Latino and 26% White in 2019, according to data gathered at the time.
“I think the (current) map follows the communities of interest that this whole process was created for, and adjustments to those lines can hurt the population we aimed to uplift. I’m trying to protect the east side of Garden Grove — that was the whole premise of this lawsuit,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen added the redistricting topic is expected to come back to the council sometime this month.
Yet numbers alone can’t give the full picture of how a community has changed, says Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.
Transformations in the electorate can happen in other ways, beyond population size and the limited demographics captured by the decennial U.S. Census count, Romero said in a Monday phone interview.
“Even if an area’s demographics didn’t shift very much, the civic engagement landscape could shift — new community groups could form, more people may have gotten involved or mobilized for their interests over a given amount of time,” Romero said, adding that census data also doesn’t include every type of demographic.
“That’s why there should be an open conversation and opportunity for all communities of interest to be part of the decision-making process,” Romero said. “When you go through the redistricting process, it gives the opportunity for local groups and communities of interest to have their say in the new restructuring of those lines.
Orange County’s Little Saigon has been eyed closely during the state-level redistricting process, a process which opened up concerns that Little Saigon’s voting power would get divided in elections where the area’s interests may compete with others in California.
[Read: Some Early CA Redistricting Map Sketches Raise Concerns Little Saigon Could Be Split Up]
The question of dividing the community between different districts becomes more intricate during such debates at the municipal level, for cities and school districts – a question of who, within Little Saigon itself, should be split representation-wise from who.
While known for having a large Vietnamese population, cities and school districts within Little Saigon also have considerable Latino and white populations.
For many California cities, the redistricting process must be completed by April 17.
The City of Westminster may have less time.
A ballot measure this June will ask voters in town whether they want the Westminster mayor’s office to go from a citywide elected position to a rotational one amongst the council members.
Voters will also decide whether to turn the existing mayor seat into an entirely new council member district rather than one elected at large – meaning the number of voting districts in town would go from four to five.
Both of those questions are under one ballot proposal.
The dueling scenarios have city officials in a scramble to not just ensure the four-district map is ready to go, but to also ensure that – in the event the ballot measure passes – City Hall can finalize the new five-district map in time for candidate nominations to begin.
Thus, acting City Clerk Lucie Colombo in a Monday phone interview said the city plans to bring the maps up for council approval on Feb. 23.
But officials can’t gather all the necessary materials until the results of the ballot measure are certified.
“The Registrar of Voters has up to 30 days to certify the election. Assuming they take the full 30 days, we’re gonna cut it very close,” said Colombo.
The dash to clear this time window also comes as City Hall is in the midst of a years-long leadership vacuum – one where the old city clerk, Christine Cordon, has had to fill in as City Hall’s top-ranking executive, the city manager.
Still, council members in town such as Kimberly Ho don’t seem too worried.
“We are just waiting for staff to agendize it (the maps),” Ho said in a Monday phone interview. Though she acknowledged the city “has a lot of work ahead.”
Westminster’s current mayor is Tri Ta, who along with Councilmember Charlie Nguyen has clashed with the council majority consisting of council members Ho, Tai Do and Carlos Manzo. The council majority supported placing the issue on the ballot.
“With the short period of time, I do not know how the community can submit comments or inputs to the two processes,” Ta said in a written response to Voice of OC questions Monday.
“It’s a really narrow window but we are coordinating with the county to make sure we meet the deadlines,” Colombo said.
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