May 20, 2011 | San Francisco Chronicle | Original Article

Redistricting is a tough sell for some voters

Over the next few weeks, Californians will have an unprecedented chance to reshape their political process - without politicians or judges mucking it up.

But one question worries community activists: Will citizens take full advantage of the opportunity? It's a common refrain among those trying to rally residents to participate in the once-a-decade redrawing of the state's political maps, known as redistricting.

When the state's political boundaries are drawn by politicians, they tend to favor incumbents. That promises to change as a result of ballot measures approved by voters in 2008 and 2010 that shifted the decision-making from elected officials to citizens.

At hearings across the state, including four in the next few days in Northern California, residents can tell the 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission why they should be grouped into a particular state Assembly, Senate, congressional or state Board of Equalization district. A first draft of proposed district lines is to be released June 10.

The commission wants citizens to define their community to them. It could be anything from saying that they want to be grouped with nearby residents of the same ethnicity to explaining how they and their neighbors identify with a local park or school.

Crucial process

At one recent commission meeting, residents of the high desert city of Antelope Valley (Los Angeles County) showed the panel satellite photos of the region to illustrate how they should be grouped with residents of Kern County.

Even policy wonks admit the process can sound esoteric and daunting. But expressing an opinion is one of the most important things a voter can do. How each district is drawn - and who lives in it - determines how much federal and state money flows to a particular region, and also who represents it.

As the commission described in its redistricting guide for citizens: "When voters with similar interests are drawn into a district together their voices multiply, giving them a greater opportunity to express their views, elect candidates of their choice and hold their leaders accountable."

Changes in the north

Northern California residents need to speak up loudly, say community activists, as they stand to see their political power fade. New census figures show the state's population shifting to the Central Valley and Southern California - which could leave Northern Californians living in radically redrawn districts.

Depending on how the bipartisan commission draws the maps, San Francisco's Asian American community could see its power diminished, for example, or Latinos in the Watsonville farm belt could be grouped in an urban district that doesn't share their concerns about immigration and education.

Redistricting "is only important if you care about money or power," said commission member Cynthia Dai of San Francisco. The panel is charged with redrawing the state's often ridiculed, gerrymandered districts based on the input it hears from Californians. "And there will be big changes ahead for San Francisco," Dai said.

Still, it's tough to get people interested.

"When you talk about it to people, their eyes glaze over," said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, which has been organizing around the issue for months in San Francisco. "If it's difficult for people like us to understand, imagine how it is for someone else. Or a new immigrant. It's like giving the keys to a race car to someone who just learned to drive."

Diluted power

The problems are of particular concern in communities of color, which historically have seen their power diluted.

With that in mind, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund has organized 20 redistricting education workshops across the state in recent months.

The group created a website,, and weekly webinars and phone banks to try to reach as many people as possible, said Astrid Garcia, the organization's director of state election policy and redistricting.

Eugene Lee, a voting rights director for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, points to the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose, where a majority of the residents are Asian American. The area was divided among four separate Assembly districts during the 2001 redistricting, diluting the power of that group.

The agricultural city of Watsonville, whose population is more than 75 percent Latino, is part of the state's 15th Senate District, which includes well-to-do Santa Clara County suburbs such as Saratoga, which is two-thirds white and where the average family income is roughly five times greater than in Watsonville.

"Here, people are worried about the effects of the Dream Act," proposed legislation to grant citizenship to children brought illegally into the U.S. if they complete college or military service, said Watsonville Mayor Daniel Dodge. "We would like to be grouped with communities that are more like us."
Geographical splits

But Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Alpaugh (Tulare County), thinks the "communities of interest" concept is too fuzzy and has asked the commission to consider a system that would cut down on how many times cities and counties are split. Dai, the San Francisco redistricting commission member, said the proposal would give the panel less flexibility to deal with shifting demographics.

"We're not going to have a map that looks like a series of squares," Dai said.

Still, Nunes' proposal is an example of the passion of those who have been paying attention to the process thus far, she said. Most of the 16 commission meetings that began April 9 in Redding have attracted 200 to 300 participants.

Dai said they have shared a common refrain: "Everybody insists that they live in the most gerrymandered district in the state."

"People have had a lot to say and we haven't drawn one line yet," she added. "I'm guessing they'll get more involved ... when our first draft comes out."

Redistricting meetings

These meetings of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission will be held in the coming days in the Bay Area:

Friday: Santa Rosa - 6-9 p.m., City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Ave.

Saturday: Oakland - 2-5 p.m., City Council Chambers, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Monday: San Jose - 6-9 p.m., Mayfair Community Center, 2039 Kammerer Ave.

Tuesday: Oakland - 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., organized group presentations at Laney College, Room D200, 900 Fallon St.
Sign up to speak

Speakers can obtain a number on a first-come, first-served basis beginning one hour before the hearings. Contact the commission at or (866) 356-5217. For information about the commission or to view video of previous meetings, go to:
Help centers

UC Berkeley has opened technical assistance centers across the state, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, where users can get access to data, software and expertise that they can use to present the commission with information about their communities.

In the Bay Area, go to the center at 2850 Telegraph Ave., Suite 471, Berkeley, CA 94705; call (510) 642-8320; or e-mail
What's your community?

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission suggests these tips for defining your community:

-- Mention key local places such as parks, cultural centers, religious or government buildings, a commercial area, schools or clubs.

-- Use census and demographic data to describe residents in your area.

-- Link issues that tie local residents, such as where to locate a new transit line or road or traditions such as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. Talk about the community's history.

-- Be clear about the boundaries of your community. Use street intersections and geographic markers.

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