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California redistricting commission approves new congressional lines

California loses a House seat for the first time, but experts predict Democrats will continue to succeed under the much-anticipated new political boundaries.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The independent commission of citizens tasked with shaping California’s 52 congressional districts formally approved new boundaries late Monday, putting incumbents from both parties on notice just six months ahead of the 2022 midterm primaries.

The vote caps a closely watched map-drawing process that sparked a flood of criticism from politicians, community interest groups and registered voters who were frustrated by the commission’s marathon hearings and ever-shifting proposals. By unanimous vote, the new political boundaries will head to the secretary of state ahead of a court-mandated deadline.  

“We have reached the finish line for the people’s redistricting process in California,” said Commission Chair Alicia Fernandez. “We started this process leaving politics out of the equation in hopes of achieving fairer and more equitable maps. I think I speak for my colleagues when I say mission accomplished!”

The redrawing of the Golden State’s electoral landscape is being intensely watched 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 dropping one of its 53 seats in the House of Representatives. The lost seat comes as both Republicans and Democrats are eyeing the state in 2022, partly due to the ongoing exodus of incumbents who have decided to relinquish their once-comfortable seats rather than wage competitive House campaigns.

California is one of a few states that has removed redistricting duties from the Legislature directly to a group of registered voters.

To try and limit political influence or gerrymandering, voters in 2008 changed the state constitution and created an independent commission and 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 reapportion districts with approximately the same population that are contiguous and minimize the breaking up of cities, counties and communities of interest.

While accusations of gerrymandering continue to fly in from states like Texas and Ohio, California’s second attempt with allowing an inexperienced citizen’s commission to choose districts hasn’t come without criticism either.

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 together and connect the rural counties and towns that dot the Sierra Nevada. It’s also had to comply with the Voting Rights Act by ensuring that minority groups and neighborhoods are given equal chance to elect representatives of their choice, all without much of a blueprint from 2010 to rely on.

Marathon meetings conducted via Zoom have bogged down in recent weeks, making it difficult for those following the line-drawing process online. Critics have ripped the commission for an alleged lack of transparency and public comment periods have been dotted with sharp rebukes from community groups and elected officials.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed back on the commission’s plan to split up the city into four sections, arguing the maps would “dramatically dilute” the city of 1 million’s representation in Congress. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed Liccardo’s complaints and days later the commission made a late change, deciding to split the seat of Silicon Valley into three congressional districts.

Others have accused the commission of making it harder for Black lawmakers to keep their posts in places like Los Angeles. 

“The new maps prepared by the appointed government officials responsible for drawing new district lines can best be described as an onslaught against Black elected officials in LA County,” warned Representative Karen Bass and state Senator Steven Bradford in an op-ed earlier this month.

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After debuting last decade, the commission’s work has been under the microscope as its new congressional boundaries figure to greatly impact whether Democrats can maintain control over the House in 2022. The GOP only needs to flip five seats nationwide to regain the House and is hoping to pick off a few in the Golden State.  

Theoretically, California’s new lines were created without deference to political party. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a red wave will crash over the deep blue state next year.

Analysts are widely forecasting the Democratic Party to benefit from the new congressional, state Assembly, Senate and House and Board of Equalization districts and maintain its political dominance in the nation’s most populous state.

Dave Wasserman, senior editor for the Cook Political Report, cast the congressional maps as “terrific for Dems.” On Twitter, Wasserman predicted boosts for each of the 42 districts currently occupied by Democrats and added the road to reelection will get more difficult for five of the 11 sitting Republicans. 

Wasserman said the “biggest winners” include Democratic Representatives Katie Porter and Josh Harder along with Republican Representatives Young Kim and Darrell Issa. Other Republicans like Representative David Valadao and Representative Ken Calvert will likely face tougher reelection bids in 2022, according to the election forecaster.

In addition, Wasserman says the number of majority Latino congressional districts will grow from 13 to 18 due to the redistricting changes. The lost House seat was pulled from the Los Angeles/Orange County area.

Democrats currently hold 42 of the state’s 53 House seats, 59 of 80 in the state Assembly and 31 of 40 state Senate seats, and the party figures to maintain its grasp over all three bodies.

In an analysis of the draft maps approved by the commission last month, the Public Policy Institute of California predicted Democrats will keep 40 House seats, 31 in the Senate and 62 in the Assembly.

“Because the predictions assume an average election, they may overstate Democratic performance for 2022, since a president’s party tends to do worse than average in midterm elections,” the PPIC study concludes. “But the central tendency will still be strong Democratic performance.”

Ignoring the unfavorable predictions, the California GOP claims it will win in 2022 despite trailing Democrats in voter registration by a nearly 2 to 1 margin.

“Republicans will field the most diverse and talented slate of candidates in California history,” said California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson in a statement. “The lines are drawn, and California Republicans are ready to fight for every vote reflecting the diversity of our great state.”

As the PPIC points out, the commission essentially ripped apart the existing congressional maps and as a result, more than a dozen representatives have been drawn into an area with another incumbent.

The lack of favor to incumbents has helped spur a barrage of retirement messages in recent weeks from both sides of the aisle, clouding the midterm outlook.

On the Democratic side the list of House members resigning includes Bass who is running for Los Angeles Mayor, longtime San Francisco Bay Area Representative Jackie Speier, Representative Alan Lowenthal and Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, the first Mexican American congresswoman. On the other side, Republican Devin Nunes announced last month he was leaving Congress for a job with former President Donald Trump.

The commission will now take three days of public review on the maps before certifying and sending over to the secretary of state by Dec. 27. Any potential legal challenge to the finalized maps will be expedited directly to the California Supreme Court.

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