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California approves draft congressional maps, major tweaks to come

With California slated to lose a congressional seat for the first time in history, the redistricting process is officially underway in the nation's most populous state.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The commission tasked with setting California’s electoral lines for the next decade approved new draft district boundaries late Wednesday, though commissioners admitted the much-anticipated maps are far from a finished product.

In a unanimous vote, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission advanced new maps for the California State Assembly, Senate, the House and Board of Equalization districts. Five days early, commissioners said approving what seemingly amount to rough drafts was important to continue dialogue with the public and community groups over the future confines of politics in the nation’s most populous state.

“Although these are not our final maps — these are draft maps — I look forward to continuing to make them better to represent the people of California,” said commissioner Isra Ahmad late Wednesday.

The redrawing of the Golden State’s electoral landscape is being intensely watched this time around as California is losing a congressional seat for the first time.

While the state’s population increased by more than 2 million since 2010, it did so at a lower pace than most states, so it’s losing one of its 53 seats in the House of Representatives. The lost seat comes as both national parties are eyeing the state in 2022, partly due to the expectation that some incumbents will relinquish their once-comfortable seats rather than wage competitive House campaigns.

To try and limit political influence or gerrymandering, voters in 2008 changed the state constitution and created an independent commission to take over redistricting duties from the Legislature. Two years later, voters added the responsibility of drawing congressional districts to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The 14-member commission features five registered Democrats, five Republicans and four from neither of the parties. Its chief goal is to draw districts with approximately the same population that are contiguous and minimize the breaking up of cities, major neighborhoods and counties.

The latter has proven difficult for the commission in the build up to Wednesday’s reveal.

For the last three weeks the commission has been discussing the drafts during marathon sessions that featured passionate testimony from the public, community groups and commissioners themselves. New boundaries have been drawn only to be scrapped shortly after, making the virtual drawings difficult to track for those watching online.

Commissioners have grappled with the unenviable task of how to best split up the greater Los Angeles area and its nearly 19 million residents, keep the seat of the Central Valley in Fresno whole and connect the rural counties and towns that dot the Sierra Nevada. It’s trying do this while complying with the Voting Right Act by ensuring that minority groups and neighborhoods are given equal chance to elect representatives of their choice.

Earlier this week, commissioner Sara Sadhwani described the nonpartisan redrawing process as taking a “chainsaw to our congressional maps,” but the Pomona College politics professor acknowledged there is more fine tuning to come over the next two months despite Wednesday’s result.

“We achieved a lot and we still have a whole lot of work in front of us,” Sadhwani said. “I know we didn’t touch much of LA County in our Assembly and congressional districts and I think we’ll be taking a fine-tooth comb through that area in the future.”

A presumed benefit of California’s switch to an independent redistricting commission was to make the process more transparent and easier to follow for the public, but this week’s hearings were often awkward and jerky.

Held via Zoom, hearings stretched on for well over eight hours and the proposed draft maps weren’t loaded to the commission website until after lunch on Wednesday. Even then, the versions were low-resolution making it hard to distinguish what was being proposed for Southern California. Shortly after the vote, shapefiles of each congressional district were uploaded.

Along with various Los Angeles neighborhoods, callers expressed frustration with one new district that joins parts of Bakersfield and Fresno. Others raised concerns about the condensing of districts between Sacramento and Fresno, as well as a proposal to split the town of Truckee from the Lake Tahoe region.

With Wednesday’s vote, the preliminary drafts are open for public comment and the commission must submit finalized versions to the Secretary of State by Dec. 27, nearly six months from the midterm primary elections. Any potential legal challenge to the maps will be expedited directly to the California Supreme Court.

While an overwhelming majority of states still allow lawmakers to handle redistricting duties, Sadhwani says California’s process is inherently fairer to the average voter.

“[The old way] happened behind closed doors where the public never has an opportunity to weigh in or to see what’s guiding the process,” she told a San Francisco Bay Area radio station on Wednesday. “Here we’re wide open, all of our line drawing is done in public with lots of public scrutiny.”

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