San Diego —
The San Diego County Independent Redistricting Commission approved new voting maps for the county’s five supervisorial districts on Dec. 14. The districts must be revised every decade to adjust for demographic changes following the collection of U.S. Census data. This was the first time the county had entrusted the redistricting effort to citizen commissioners rather than elected officials. To complicate matters, they undertook the process in the midst of the pandemic, receiving thousands of public comments by e-mail or in Zoom meetings. The Union-Tribune talked to the Commission Chair David Bame to learn how the redistricting process worked and what could be learned for next time. Bame, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in the Middle East, Europe, Washington D.C. and as an adviser to Navy Seals in San Diego, talks about the conflicts, challenges and accomplishment of the 14-member bipartisan commission.
How was this redistricting commission different than previous redistricting efforts?
All previous redistricting efforts were conducted by the Board of Supervisors itself! The County of San Diego Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) was different in that it was made up of 14 citizen-volunteers who reflected the geographic, political, ethnic, and other aspects of the county’s diversity. The IRC also was fully independent from the Board of Supervisors, and prohibited from intentionally providing any advantage or disadvantage to political parties, incumbents, or candidates. The IRC’s approved map is final and not subject to reviews or approval by the Board of Supervisors.
What is the reason for convening an independent commission?
The independent commission was proposed to the Legislature by the county itself after the 2011 redistricting effort, and is now enshrined in state law. The independent commission was convened to ensure a redistricting process that would be independent of elected officials and political influence. The process instead is based on 2020 census data, collective input from people throughout the county of San Diego, and apolitical criteria such as contiguity and compactness of districts.
What was the process for selecting commissioners?
The process to select the 14 commissioners involved four stages: applications from more than 300 residents of the county, review of those applications by non-partisan county staff to select 60 of the “most qualified applicants” under statutory criteria; selection by lottery of an initial group of eight commissioners; and two meetings to review the remaining finalists and pick six additional commissioners.
What did the public-input process entail?
The IRC held 10 formal public hearings; heard approximately 800 verbal comments at 49 meetings; and received more than 3,600 comments electronically throughout the 13-month process. Public engagement also included individual commissioners explaining redistricting, the IRC’s mission, and the centrality of public input to county residents in more than 30 events.
How did delays in the release of census data affect your efforts?
Delays in the 2020 Census had a dramatic effect on the IRC’s efforts. On the one hand, the delay increased the time available to educate the public about redistricting; on the other, the delay significantly curtailed the amount of time available for developing redistricting maps. Originally, the law anticipated that the IRC would have about four months between receiving census data and approving a final map. In reality, the IRC had just under three months between the receipt of adjusted census data on Sept. 20 and the deadline to approve a final map on Dec. 15.
What were the key challenges you faced?
The fact that this was the county’s first independent redistricting commission required the creation of new structures and processes with no institutional memory or examples. COVID-19 presented numerous other challenges, from coping with a lack of in-person meetings to diverting valuable time from commission business to authorizing virtual proceedings. Commissioners nonetheless overcame these challenges by contributing additional time and energy to these voluntary duties.
Please tell us about the majority-minority Latino voting area in District 1?
Latino and other minority groups not only have continued opportunities in the “majority-minority” District 1, but also in coalitions of minority groups and other voters in Districts 4 and 5. Similar opportunities for fair representation and participation are also included in Districts 2 and 3.
How did you accommodate different visions for a North County district?
The IRC heard both complementary and competing public inputs from that area, just as the IRC did throughout the county. The final map keeps Escondido whole, in one district, within a well-defined community of interest in that part of the county.
How did you resolve conflicts over placement of the city of El Cajon and surrounding areas, including Chaldean community and other immigrant groups?
Like Escondido, the city of El Cajon includes numerous communities with ties to other communities of interest to the east and west. The final map reflects complementary and competing inputs, even from within the various communities themselves, and balances those inputs with other statutory criteria.
What did you learn this time that would benefit the next redistricting effort?
While the next redistricting effort hopefully will not face a pandemic, it likely will still need to meet many people, communities, and organizations where they are, rather than expect them to come to a commission event. The mapping process is crucial, especially in a compressed time period. It will be important to outline a deliberate process for drafting, evaluating, and refining maps early, with course corrections along the way and time to solicit and absorb public input. Commissioner-impartiality is another key factor, especially as more political input from the public arrives. The IRC is proud that it adhered firmly to statutory requirements not to allow political influence, nor to intentionally provide any advantage or disadvantage to political parties, incumbents, or candidates.