The Redistricting Process Is a Cartographic Murphy’s Law

It seems like everyone is up in arms as the council takes over the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries.
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Over the last month, a lot of people in City Hall have been, to put it mildly, completely freaking out over the proposed new City Council boundaries. They are not alone—residents from South Los Angeles to Downtown to Koreatown to Silver Lake to Westchester to portions of the San Fernando Valley have vociferously protested the draft maps offered by the City Council Redistricting Commission. In short, the commission, clearly under orders from the elected officials who appointed them, has created an absolute mess. Many charge that the proposed boundaries have more to do with politics than neighborhoods.

The interesting thing about the above paragraph is that not only does it describe what is happening now, but that I wrote it almost 10 years ago, as part of a Downtown News editorial, when the 2011 council redistricting process had gone off the rails. That redrawing of boundaries was a stinking mess, with then-Council President Herb Wesson and his compatriots slicing and dicing communities with sushi-chef precision.

It’s hard to tell if the current redistricting process—which this week moves from an appointed commission to the council itself—is better or worse than the last one, but clearly, local leaders have learned between little and nothing from the mistakes made and the complaints leveled a decade ago. The process that has unfolded over the past few months is a sort of cartographic Murphy’s Law.

Just consider: The 2021 redistricting commission was so flummoxed that its final map assigns 13 districts to councilmembers, but a pair of other districts are currently labeled “4-Or-2” and “2-Or-4.” That’s because the commission was unable to decide which territory should go to District 4 rep Nithya Raman, and which to assign to District 2 Councilmember Paul Krekorian.

Speaking of Raman and Krekorian, both are furious over the final drawings in what is known as Map K2.5. That’s because if the present holds, one politician will wind up with a district mostly new to them, and the other will be stuck representing an area completely new to them.

The hits have been incessant, and though the commission has defended itself, its work has been pilloried on social media. The council itself, which will have to live with the new boundaries for the next 10 years, also threw up its hands. On Oct. 22, Council President Nury Martinez lashed out at the lines drawn, declaring in a fierce statement that, “too many voices across the city have yet to be heard,” despite the redistricting commission seeking to involve the public through dozens of Zoom sessions.

Then Martinez really went big.

“As it stands now drastic changes were made to the map that have confused and alienated thousands and threaten to widen the divides between communities,” she said in the statement. “While some areas kept their assets and neighborhoods whole, poverty was concentrated in other communities that have already suffered from disinvestment and neglect for generations.”

Everywhere you look, there are disputes. A turf war has broken out in the San Fernando Valley. Then there’s the battle over Exposition Park and USC. In 2011, both were moved into District 9, a step interpreted by many as a slap at then-District 8 Councilmember Bernard Parks, who had feuded with Wesson. Now District 9 representative Curren Price and current District 8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson are both angling for the territories.

To be sure, there is nothing simple about drawing council districts. The receipt for disaster is baked in from the start, given that Los Angeles has 15 council members, and while that number of representatives sufficed when it was established in 1925 and the city had 1.23 million inhabitants, today L.A. claims more than 4 million residents. Now each council district must hold approximately 260,000 people, with lines redrawn every decade based on the U.S. Census results.

In fact, the redistricting commission itself is begging the powers-that-be to super-size the council. “As we approach the third decade of the new century, this Commission recommends that the City expand the number of Council Districts to meet the needs of a complex and changing society,” reads a passage on page 31 of the draft of the commission’s final report.

The sheer size of the districts is only part of what complicates the process. Mapmakers also must try to keep so-called “communities of interest” together. This has not always happened; the 2001 redistricting left Downtown cleaved in two districts. After the 2011 carving, four different districts had portions of Koreatown.

In the current iteration, commission members took pains to keep each of those communities together, and attention was also focused on ensuring that there were at least five full San Fernando Valley districts, a response to longtime Valley complaints that it gets short shrift in City Hall.

Yet noble aims have been undermined. Sitting politicians appoint members to the redistricting commission, but at various points in the process, members were yanked and replaced. The most notable change involved Raman, who was only elected a year ago, and who saw the possibility of most of the people who voted for her being shifted into another district. Looking to save her territory, Raman recently replaced her commissioner, Alexandra Suh, with Jackie Goldberg, a current LAUSD School Board Member and former City Councilmember. Goldberg, one of the sharpest figures in the region, quickly went into battle mode.

The redistricting commission delivered its final report, and now the council takes charge, with the first discussion scheduled for Tuesday. Ultimately a new council ad hoc redistricting committee will do the heavy lifting in a process that must be completed by the end of the year. On one hand, the batch of new players could be a good thing, as it offers an opportunity to respond to the dissatisfaction that has erupted.

On the other hand, this is baffling, because it ensures that a process that ideally should be apolitical will become completely political. Last I checked, councilmembers were law and policy makers, not trained cartographers. Giving these individuals a deciding hand in who represents what territory seems to beg for horse-trading and some bizarre configurations.

It’s that very element that hearkens back to the overarching problem with the redistricting process—there is a lack of independence. Although California has instituted a citizens’ commission to draw new maps for Congressional and legislative districts, in the city of Los Angeles, the pols can stick their fingers in the pie.

Interestingly, those calling for a change in the system include the people who just drew Map K2.5, and who have taken so much flack. The redistricting commission’s report to the council includes nine recommendations to the lawmakers. The first suggests that the council, “Follow the example of the state of California and many counties and cities, and create an independent, rather than advisory, citizen’s redistricting commission, removing the appointing authority and final decision on redrawn Council District lines from city elected officials.”

Will this happen? Check back on the process in 2031.