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SLO County conservatives' gerrymandered map didn't work out so well for them


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It's now been seven weeks since our Nov. 8 election and three weeks since SLO County Clerk-Recorder Elaina Cano certified the results. Those results show that the Republican Party of SLO lost big.

The local GOP is being "hoist by its own petard"—an expression from Shakespeare's Hamlet that means blown up by your own explosive device. The bomb that's exploding under the local GOP takes the form of the disputed redistricting map known as the "Patten map" foisted on the county by the conservative board majority in December 2021.

This tale requires some explanation—and a caveat: There is still one race in which the result is shadowed by uncertainty. On Dec. 7, Cano certified that four-term incumbent Bruce Gibson had won the critical 2nd District supervisorial race against challenger Bruce Jones by a whopping 13 votes out of 23,431 cast. A manual recount of votes is now underway, and the result of that recount could go the other way.

GOP activist Darcia Stebbens requested the recount and is funding it to the tune of an estimated $80,000. Last summer, Stebbens also requested and paid for the manual recount of the 4th District June primary. It didn't change a single vote—challenger Jimmy Paulding beat incumbent Lynn Compton by 639 votes out of 20,899.

If, as expected, the 2nd District results hold, Stebbens and her right-wing allies threaten to take their "case" to court, where they will probably claim "fraud," "mismanagement," and "conspiracy." Their claims result from the fact that the vast majority of ballots—92 percent—were submitted by mail; only 1,856 were voted at the polls. County Republican officials asked their voters to vote in-person at polling places.

Administering this election was a tremendous challenge for the County Elections Office because each mailed ballot must be submitted in an envelope signed by the voter. Trained elections workers must compare that signature to the signature on the respective voter registration card. Where they observe a discrepancy or a missing signature, the Elections Office contacts that voter and offers them an opportunity to "cure" the ballot. The deadline for curing ballots was Dec. 5—only two days before the Clerk had to certify the results.

Elections law is complex. Managing our county elections requires a professional with strong integrity and a commitment to voting rights. Fortunately, we have that in Cano.

Unfortunately, Stebbens and her contingent of "concerned citizens" are less interested in changing the results of the election than in casting shade on the integrity of our clerk-recorder and throwing a wrench into the gears of our election machinery.

The razor-thin margins in the 2nd and the 4th District elections reveal a closely-divided electorate. Victories by Paulding and Gibson mean that the SLO County Board of Supervisors has a 3-2 liberal majority for the first time since 2012 when conservative Debbie Arnold beat liberal 5th District incumbent Jim Patterson.

The irony is that the old conservative majority was elected using districts drawn in 2011 by the liberal majority in compliance with state law. Ten years later, that conservative majority re-drew those lines. They adopted a gerrymandered map designed by local GOP operative Richard Patten intending that map to solidify a conservative majority for another 10 years by "packing and stacking" the county's Democratic voters into a new, narrowly-drawn 3rd District and shifting the 2nd District from liberal coastal communities into more conservative North County communities. The 2nd District went from a 20-point Democratic plurality to a 5-point deficit.

The Patten map also took troublesome Oceano out of conservative Lynn Compton's 4th District and gave her the affluent neighborhoods of the Edna Valley, thought to be more aligned with her "small government" mentality. It didn't work out so well for Compton.

In fact, that highly partisan redistricting effort is coming apart at the seams: The nail-biter outcomes in the 2nd and 4th Districts will probably be followed by more predictable results in 2024: The 1st, 3rd, and 5th Districts will be up for election—and if the Patten map is used, the 3rd and 5th districts now have a solid Democratic advantage.

The 3rd District, where Dawn Ortiz-Legg is finishing the term of the late Adam Hill, is the strongest Democratic stronghold, with SLO, Morro Bay, and a 28-point advantage.

The 5th District was completely transplanted from North County and northeastern SLO to a coastal district that stitches together Los Osos, Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Oceano. Where the previous 5th District had a 2-point GOP lead, the new 5th District is solidly "blue" with a 15-point advantage.

It is uncertain whether the Patten map will be used for the 2024 election. The bipartisan chorus that challenged the conservative majority's redistricting process coalesced into SLO County Citizens for Good Government, which filed a lawsuit in January 2021. That issue is now before the courts and will drag on well into 2023.

Local Republicans might be changing their tune and hoping that the Patten map is overturned. The 2024 election is likely to produce a 4-1 liberal majority, leaving only the 1st District as conservative. Δ

John Ashbaugh has been involved in local politics since 1977. Respond by emailing [email protected].


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