Before they passed a committee vote on Wednesday, two pieces of legislation that would help end gerrymandering in California were introduced in a media briefing by a coalition of voting and civil rights groups.
The briefing, hosted on April 20, was held to discuss Assembly Bills (AB) 1248 and 764, both with the goal of ending gerrymandering — the practice of drawing districts to favor one political party or racial group.
AB 1248 would require large local jurisdictions — cities, counties and school districts with a population over 300,000 — to create independent redistricting commissions by 2030. If they do not, a default commission outlined in California law will be used.
AB 764 would strengthen the 2019 FAIR Maps Act (FMA), a bill that requires cities and counties to use standardized, fair redistricting criteria that prioritize communities when drawing district lines. The new bill would close a loophole in the act that allows incumbents to draw lines to protect their re-election chances — also known as incumbent protection gerrymandering — and increase public engagement and participation.
Each bill was passed by the Assembly Local Government Committee on April 26 by a 5-1 vote.
“Gerrymandering has no place in our democracy,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause. “The scandal in Los Angeles pulled back the curtain on what it looks like when politicians slice and dice communities, sacrificing their empowerment and representation in order to boost their careers, help their friends and hurt their enemies.”
The scandal he referred to is the leaked recording of former City Council President Nury Martinez, former Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Councilmember Kevin de Leon discussing redrawing district maps in their interests at the expense of rivals.
“Together, AB 764 and AB 1248 solve these problems and would make California the nationwide leader on fair, independent, transparent, inclusive and community-centered redistricting,” said Stein.
Both bills were informed by The Promise of Fair Maps, an assessment of California’s 2020 local redistricting process. The report’s author, Nicholas Heidorn, found that the redistricting process was “significantly improved” in terms of transparency and community outreach due to the FMA.
However, the report had several shortcomings with the FMA, the most prominent being the loophole that allows incumbent protection gerrymandering, which affects communities of color. In addition, the FMA’s requirement of greater transparency and public outreach applied to cities and counties, but not school or special districts. The FMA also lacks clear penalties for procedural violations, so some jurisdictions would do the bare minimum of work.
The report includes 23 recommendations to improve the local redistricting process, including prohibiting jurisdictions from drawing lines to favor or discriminate against incumbents, requiring independent redistricting commissions for larger jurisdictions and prohibiting the direct appointment of commissioners by elected officials and extending the FMA to apply to all local governments.
“I think it’s important to remember that redistricting plays a significant role in determining which communities will have their voices heard in City Hall for the next decade,” Heidorn said, “and [in] all levels of government, the process should be transparent and welcoming of community participation and the map should be drawn to be community reflective and free of political bias.”
Julia Gomez, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, touted the positive effects of the FMA, particularly in Orange County, where more hearings and workshops were held that drove up interest among the public in the process of redistricting.
There were also several draft maps that Gomez said were clearly drawn up in favor of a specific party. Most of the maps were not adopted, but Gomez did say one map did go through in a “clear, intentional effort” to make it difficult for Katrina Foley, the supervisor for Orange County’s Fifth District, to be re-elected.
“AB 764 addresses these blatant efforts to use redistricting for anything other than to ensure fair representation by prohibiting line-drawers from adopting a map for the purpose of favoring or targeting an incumbent, and by clarifying that, after a new map is adopted, officials can continue to represent the districts from which they were elected,” Gomez said.
Dora Rose, deputy director of The League of Women Voters of California, used Tulare County as an example of the positive effect of the FMA. Before the last redrawing of district lines in 2021, the county had only one Latino on the Board of Supervisors and had only two in its history — despite the county’s population being 65 percent Latino. The county was even accused of suppressing Latino voters and threatened with a lawsuit.
Currently, the county has a new map that unites Latinos into three districts with a Latino population, of voting age, that’s more than 55 percent.
“We need to build on the success of the FAIR Maps Act and expand the use of independent redistricting commissions to give diverse communities even more robust tools to ensure that their voices are heard, gerrymandering is eradicated and our democracy can thrive,” Rose said.
Despite the positives of the FMA, there are still counties in California that are experiencing the effects of gerrymandering, including a lack of input and transparency. Sietse Goffard, senior program coordinator at the Voting Rights of Asian Law Caucus, used San Mateo County as an example.
In November 2021, the Board of Supervisors voted to keep their existing map, with minor alterations, over other maps the Advisory Committee and community members said offered better representation.
The hope is that the two assembly bills would prevent such issues from arising in the future.
“Stories like this illustrate the importance of AB 764 and AB 1248 for the sake of our democracy,” said Goffard. “There is an urgent, urgent need to create more transparent, independent and fair redistricting that invites the input of all Californians.”