Statewide Investigation of California’s 2020 Local Redistricting Cycle Finds Widespread Gerrymandering to Protect Incumbents, Underscores Benefits of Independent Commissions

Voting rights and civil rights organizations recommend key solutions to end gerrymandering in the Golden State and support an inclusive, multiracial democracy

Los Angeles, CA – A coalition of civil rights and civic engagement organizations released a major report evaluating California’s 2020 local redistricting cycle. The report, released in the wake of the Los Angeles redistricting scandal, reveals widespread violations of the FAIR MAPS Act throughout the state and offers recommendations to reform local redistricting in California.

The report is based on evaluations of hundreds of local jurisdictions’ redistricting processes in the latest cycle and interviews with dozens of community-based organizations and community stakeholders across the state who worked deeply in the local redistricting process. Findings show that city councils, county boards of supervisors, and school boards in many regions manipulated redistricting processes to entrench incumbents’ political power at the expense of California’s communities. 

The recent local redistricting cycle saw countless calls for inclusion and transparency go ignored as neighborhoods and communities across the state were split in order to keep those in power in power, with several examples provided in the report. 

The findings underscore the urgent need to expand and strengthen the FAIR MAPS Act, authored by then-Assemblymember and now-Attorney General Rob Bonta, legislation that prioritized and empowered community voices in the local line-drawing process and sought to fight incumbency-based and partisan gerrymandering at the local level. It also shows how independent redistricting commissions led the most fair, transparent, and inclusive redistricting processes at the local level.

The report recommends:

  • 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;
  • Increasing the minimum number of redistricting hearings and workshops based on the size of the jurisdiction;
  • Requiring jurisdictions to provide in-person and remote options for providing live testimony at public hearings; and
  • Extending the FAIR MAPS Act to apply to all local governments.

The coalition producing the report includes ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California, Asian Law Caucus, California Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters of California. 

“Californians have paved the way when it comes to making sure our congressional and state voting districts are drawn fairly,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause. “But this report shows that our process for drawing districts for local government is still in need of major reform. Gerrymandering to protect incumbents is rampant – this report outlines concrete steps we can take to put an end to the backroom deals that leave our communities behind.”

“League of Women Voters members across California work tirelessly to advocate for transparent, participatory, and fair redistricting processes in their local governments,” said Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California. “We need to build on the success of the FAIR MAPS Act to give diverse communities even more robust tools to ensure that their voices are heard, gerrymandering is eradicated, and our democracy can thrive. This report is our guide to that work.”

“We saw communities speak up and get engaged in local redistricting across California, telling line-drawers where they live and what matters to them. We want to be sure that their input is taken seriously so they have a voice in our democracy,” said Sietse Goffard, senior voting rights program coordinator at the Asian Law Caucus. “We need better guardrails and independent processes to make sure community input is fully considered and reflected in all maps.” 

“This past redistricting cycle, many local governments fell short of prioritizing community voices,” said Julia A. Gomez, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “The recommendations in this report directly address the transparency and line-drawing issues flagged by community partners and will help ensure that California continues to move toward a democracy that is truly representative of its residents.”

“Redistricting is of critical importance to local democracy and can determine whether or not a community will be fairly represented at city hall or their school board for the next decade,” said Nicolas Heidorn, the report’s primary drafter, and a redistricting consultant to the partner organizations. “One of the main findings of this report is that politically-independent redistricting commissions perform better than incumbent-controlled redistricting in terms of transparency, encouraging public participation, and adopting maps that better respect communities of interest. Unlike incumbents, commissioners’ political futures are not on the line when they redistrict, which means they are more likely to genuinely consider public comment and be responsive to the needs of diverse communities.” 

Other key findings from the report:

  • 2019’s FAIR MAPS Act (FMA) reforms made for a far more transparent and participatory local redistricting process, although several jurisdictions failed to follow the law’s requirements.
  • Unlike the Brown Act, which provides rules for local open meetings, the FMA lacks a clear process and timeline for the public to notice and for jurisdictions to cure violations. This meant that correcting FMA procedural violations often took weeks in a process that lasted only a few months, or sometimes never happened.
  • Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many jurisdictions allowed the public to testify at redistricting public hearings remotely, which made it far more convenient, especially for those who might not be able to attend in-person meetings because of work or family obligations, limited mobility, or access to transportation.
  • Free online public mapping tools were much more prevalent this cycle than before, which made it easier for the public to draw and submit draft community of interest or election district maps.
  • Many jurisdictions in this cycle used advisory redistricting commissions (ARCs), which have the power to only recommend a map to the legislative body. ARCs had a far more mixed record than IRCs: ARC commissioners often ended up acting as proxies for the elected officials that appointed them, recommending maps that were likely no different than what the legislative body would have adopted on its own. Where ARCs proposed maps that better united communities of interest but also threatened the political status quo, their recommendations often went ignored. 

Read The Promise of Fair Maps, California’s 2020 Local Redistricting Cycle: Lessons Learned and Future Reforms.