California Local Redistricting Project

California’s state Citizens Redistricting Commission is a national model for fair, independent redistricting. With the success of the state commission, many California local governments have become interested in establishing their own local commissions to assist with or conduct local redistricting.

The California Local Redistricting Project is a joint effort of California Common Cause and the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law to provide educational resources and assistance to local jurisdictions interested in moving away from political redistricting towards independent redistricting.

What is redistricting ?

In many local governments – for example, city councils, school boards, and county boards of supervisors – voters choose their governing board so that each elected official represents a certain geographic district of the jurisdiction. These governments must redraw their election districts every ten years to account for changes in population. This process, known as “redistricting,” is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Without redistricting, population shifts over time could cause districts within a jurisdiction to have very different populations, causing the residents in more populated districts to be unfairly underrepresented.

Redistricting is most commonly associated with the redrawing of state legislative or Congressional districts; however, the requirement to redistrict every ten years applies at all levels of government, including local, wherever a legislative body is elected by district.

Who is responsible for redistricting ?

In most states, the state legislature is responsible for redrawing the boundaries of their own legislative seats and of any congressional seats within their state. This was true in California as well until 2008 when the voters passed Proposition 11, turning over the redistricting process to an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. In 2010, the voters passed Proposition 20 by an almost 2 to 1 margin, extending the Commission’s mandate to include redistricting Congressional districts. The Commission successfully redrew state and Congressional district lines in 2011.

At the local level in California, a local government’s governing board is usually responsible for drawing its own election districts. However, with the success of the state Citizens Redistricting Commission, local governments are increasingly establishing citizen commissions of their own to either advise on or to independently adopt new election district boundaries. According to a recent survey of municipal election practices by Common Cause, 36 percent of cities with by-district elections either used an advisory or independent redistricting commission in 2011 or have since established one.

Why do local jurisdictions adopt redistricting commissions?

Jurisdictions adopt redistricting commissions to create a less political and more citizen- and neighborhood-centric redistricting process.

More Citizen Participation: One of the chief advantages of a redistricting commission is that it provides more opportunities for citizen participation than the traditional process. Most local redistricting commissions are composed of civically-engaged residents, often with a requirement that the commission as a whole reflect the geographic, gender, and ethnic diversity of the jurisdiction.

As a body dedicated to a single purpose, commissions have better capacity to engage the public in the redistricting process and closely consider all the draft maps and boundary changes each neighborhood, community group, and individual may suggest. For example, whereas state law only requires one public hearing prior to adopting a district map, commissions typically hold five to ten hearings, often in different areas of the jurisdiction. Commissions can also bring added transparency to redistricting by considering maps and redistricting in full view of the public. Many jurisdictions even go a step beyond what state open meeting laws requires, for example by requiring draft maps to be posted online for a week prior to adoption or prohibiting backroom communications with commissioners regarding redistricting.

Less Politicized Process: Commissions can help depoliticize redistricting and increase public trust in the process. Under political control, redistricting can be a source of infighting on a governing board as members fight over neighborhoods or community assets. Political redistricting can also be used to accomplish political ends, for example where a majority of the board draws another member out of their district or places two members into the same district.

Political redistricting can also lead to conflict between the governing board and community groups. Elected officials often know that they will run for re-election in the new districts they adopt. This can be seen as conflict of interest and may prompt accusations that the board drew districts to favor their own reelection as opposed to best representing the different communities in that jurisdiction.

More Representative Districts: Compared with legislative bodies, independent commissions generally draw more representative districts. Studies comparing the district maps adopted by the California state legislature with the state Citizens Redistricting Commission that replaced it found that the Commission drew districts that were more compact, less gerrymandered, and more representative of communities of interest and minority populations.

What are common elements of a redistricting commission ordinance?

A typical redistricting commission ordinance will specify the commission’s powers and composition, the qualifications of commissioners and the method for selecting them, the redistricting criteria the commission should apply, and requirements for transparency and public participation.

Commission’s Power: There are three types of redistricting commissions.

  • Independent commissions have the power to themselves adopt new district maps.
  • Advisory commissions provide recommendations for election district boundaries, which the governing board may adopt, modify, or ignore.
  • Some jurisdictions adopt a hybrid model, where the commission may adopt new district maps with some level of input from the governing board.

How Commissioners are Selected: There are a variety of ways that commissioners  are selected. In some cases, commissioners are the direct political appointees of the governing board. In others, a nonpolitical third party is responsible for selecting commissioners, for example a panel of retired judges. Following the state redistricting commission model, many jurisdictions select commissioners by random draw from a pool of the most qualified applicants.

Commissions vary in size from small (San Diego County: 5 members) to large (City of Los Angeles: 21 members). Some ordinances require or encourage geographic or ethnic diversity on the commission. 

Many ordinances require prospective commissioners to meet certain eligibility qualifications, generally to ensure their political independence from incumbent officeholders. For example, incumbents and recent candidates for political office, as well as their family members and employees, are often prohibited from serving on the commission.

Redistricting Criteria: Ordinances may specify redistricting criteria for commissioners to apply in drawing new district boundaries. Sometimes these criteria are listed in order of priority.

Common criteria include:

  • Equal population: The U.S. Constitution requires each district to have substantially equal population, generally with less than a 10% difference between any two districts.
  • Compliance with the Voting Rights Act: The federal Voting Rights Act prohibits drawing districts that infringe on a minority population’s right to vote, for example by diluting a minority community’s voting strength through splitting it into several districts.
  • Compactness: Districts should be compact and not oddly-shaped. For example, a square or circular district would be very compact, whereas a star-shaped district or a district with an arm that reaches out to grab a distant population with would not.
  • Contiguity: All parts of a district should “touch,” so that it is possible to travel from one end of the district to the other without exiting the district.
  • Topography: District boundaries should follow topographical features that tend to separate neighborhoods and communities, including natural boundaries like rivers or artificial ones like freeways.
  • Neighborhoods & Communities of Interest: Neighborhoods and communities of interest should be kept intact. The California Constitution defines a community of interest as a “geographically connected population which shares common social and economic interests.”
  • Political Subdivisions: Political subdivisions, for example cities within a county, should be kept intact.
  • No Preferential Treatment of Incumbents or Candidates: The residency of an incumbent or candidate for office should not be considered when drawing district maps.

Transparency & Public Participation: Ordinances may require commissions to be more transparent and take more public comment than is required by state law. For example, ordinances sometimes require a commission to do public outreach, hold a minimum number of public hearings, post draft maps online for a specified period of time, accept written public comment, or provide the public with free mapping software to create their own proposed districts.

Which jurisdictions have adopted permanent redistricting commissions?

Seventeen local jurisdictions, from across the state, have established permanent redistricting commissions. There is a great deal of variations in how commissions are structured, including their authority, size, and commissioner selection method.

For example, the City of Sacramento has established a 13-member, independent commission with the power to adopt new district boundaries. The Sacramento commission is designed to be politically impartial and reflect community interest in redistricting. Following the state redistricting commission’s model, any qualified Sacramento registered voter may apply to serve on the commission. After removing applicants who fail to meet the minimum qualifications, the remaining candidates are screened by the city’s ethics commission based on their skillset and ability to be impartial. The first eight commissioners are selected at random – one per council district – from a pool of the most-qualified candidates. Those eight commissioners then select the final five commissioners from the remaining applicants with a goal of ensuring the commission reasonably reflects the city’s ethnic and gender diversity.

By contrast, Escondido has a seven-member hybrid commission. Rather than independently adopt a new council district map, the commission first submits its recommended map to the city council for approval. If the council does not approve the map, it returns to the commission for consideration of the council’s objections. The commission may then resubmit the same map or alter it to respond to council concerns; that map goes into effect.

Like Sacramento, any qualified city registered voters may apply to serve on the Escondido commission. However, rather than a random draw, a panel of three retired San Diego County judges review the applicants and appoint seven members to the commission. The panel is instructed to use its best efforts to create a commission that is geographically and ethnically representative and has a high degree of competency to carry out its responsibilities.

The city of Los Angeles has an entirely different model. It has created a 21-member advisory commission responsible for studying and recommending new council district boundaries to the council. The purpose of the commission is not to be politically independent but to provide greater opportunities for citizen participation in the redistricting process. Rather than an open application process, commissioners are directly appointed by city elected officials. Each of the city’s 15 councilmembers appoint one member to the commission, except for the council president who appoints two. The mayor appoints three members and the elected city attorney and city controller each appoint one.

The chart below summarizes the type of commission each of the 17 jurisdictions with permanent commissions have adopted, along with a link to the full text of the ordinance creating them.

Permanent Local Redistricting Commissions

 Jurisdiction  Type  Size  Selection Method  Citation
 Berkeley  Independent  13 Random Selection

Charter Sec. 9.5.

 Chula Vista  Hybrid  7 Random Selection

Charter Sec. 300.5  &

Mun. Code Ch. 2.51.



 Advisory  [Variable]  [Council selects process] Charter Sec. 2.02.
 Downey  Advisory  5+  Political Appointment Charter Sec. 1306.
 Escondido  Hybrid  7  Appointed by Retired Judges  Consent Decree, Sec. IX.
 City of Los Angeles  Advisory  21  Political Appointment  Charter Sec. 204.
 Los Angeles County  Independent 14  Random Selection  Cal. Elec. Code Sec. 21530 et seq.
 Modesto  Hybrid  9  Political Appointment  Charter Sec. 501.
 Oakland  Independent  13  Random Selection

Charter Sec. 220.

 Pasadena School District  Hybrid  9  Political Appointment  Charter Sec. 713.
 City of Sacramento  Independent  13  Random Selection  Charter Art. XII.
 City of San Diego  Independent  9  Appointed by Retired Judges  Charter Sec. 9.5.     

 San Diego County  Independent  5  Random Selection of Retired Judges  Cal. Elec. Code Sec. 21550.

 San Francisco  Independent  9  Political & Non-Political Appointment  Charter Sec. 13.110.
 City of San Jose  Advisory  11  Political Appointment

 Charter Sec. 403.

 Seal Beach  Advisory  [Variable]  Political Appointment
 Stockton  Advisory  7  Political Appointment  Charter Sec. 201.

How can I learn more about setting up a commission?

The University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law and California Common Cause have set up a joint program to assist jurisdictions interested in starting their own local redistricting commissions. Please visit for more information regarding local redistricting law; sample redistricting ordinances from across the state; best practices recommendations; and model ordinance language.

If you are interested in having a presentation on local redistricting, would like help with drafting a redistricting ordinance, or would like other technical assistance, please contact:

Nicolas Heidorn, Local Redistricting Project Director: (510) 798-3425,


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