Former Wisconsin state Rep. Bernard Schaber recently shared a message with a Sierra Club group in his state:
"What is the No. 1 issue for us as environmentalists? Is it clean air? Is it clean water? Is it biodiversity? Nope ... it is fair maps and abandoning gerrymandering!"
Redistricting—the once-every-10-years update and redrawing of the maps of the districts from whence elected officials are elected—is not forever. But, if done wrong, it can feel like it. Non-representative government has that effect. And wielding that process to ensure that political power is transferred to, and remains in, one set of hands is the point of gerrymandering, redistricting's dark shadow and eternal temptation.
In 2019, on a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority reversed several lower court rulings and ruled that the gerrymandering of electoral districts is not a matter in which federal courts can intervene.
The court's ruling was aimed at the drawing of congressional districts and did not affect state or local laws. That's good, because the practice, and the problem, is readily replicated at the local level. Which is why you should be paying attention to what's happening right now at the SLO County Board of Supervisors, where the opportunity for public comment on the board's redistricting of the county's supervisorial districts will basically finish up by the end of this month. After that, it could be a long 10 years, and likely a lot longer.
Here's how to weigh in: Go to the redistricting information page on the county's website and click on Draft Maps & Publicly Submitted Maps in the left-hand column in order to peruse Draft Maps A through D (and, time permitting, the lengthening list of maps submitted by individuals). Find your community and surrounding areas. Then look for the telltale signs of the gerrymanderer's craft: packing and cracking.
These are two opposite techniques that achieve the same goal. Packing puts a high number of known voters of the party not in power into a single district. The board majority's political rivals would be sure to win in that district but sure to lose in the surrounding districts that just lost all those voters. Cracking spreads a small number of opposition voters over several districts, not enough to compete with the candidates of the party in power.
As NPR put it in describing one of the cases that led to that 2019 Supreme Court ruling, "Republicans managed to both maximize their advantage and minimize Democratic power by drawing district lines to pack as many Democrats as possible into three districts, and then cracking other potentially Democratic districts in half or thirds, diluting the Democratic vote to create safe Republican districts."
While you are perusing those maps, pay special attention to the proposed remapping of District 4, whether or not you live there. This will be the focus of next year's most consequential local electoral contest, in which Supervisor Lynn Compton will be defending her seat against candidate Jimmy Paulding. The last time the two ran against each other, Compton won by 60 votes—a pretty clear indicator that this is a balanced, competitive district.
That's why Sierra Club supports the position of Citizens for Preserving District No. 4: Current census data, traditional redistricting principles, and recently enacted statutory criteria governing decisions about the rebalancing or redrawing of California supervisorial districts do not support a need for any significant changes to the 4th District's current boundaries.
In the 2022 elections, as goes the 4th District, so goes the county, and so go the next 10 years.
To stay on top of the process, sign up for updates and keep an eye on the scheduled meetings of the supervisors where you will have a chance to attend, speak, and/or send in public comments on this once-in-a-decade issue:
• Nov. 19 at 9 a.m.—draft maps hearing.
• Nov. 30 at 9 a.m.—final map and redistricting plan adoption.
• Dec. 7 at 9 a.m.—introduction of ordinance.
• Dec. 14 at 1:30 p.m.—adoption of ordinance.
When the Supreme Court declined to take action on gerrymandering in 2019, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the four justices in dissent, said, "Of all times to abandon the court's duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the court's role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections."
Right now, that's where you come in. Δ
Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through email@example.com.