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How Los Angeles Can Flex Civic Power to Crush Gerrymandering

Redistricting only happens every 10 years, so now is the time to speak up for community interests.

Los Angeles City Hall at Grand Park in the daytime
Los Angeles City Hall
(Photo: Kevin Varzandeh | Knock LA)

Redistricting — which occurs every 10 years after the collection of census data — is when legislatures, citizen commissions, or courts redraw district lines so each elected official represents the same number of people. Here in California, we mostly have independent commissions drawing the lines, but to prevent gerrymandering, residents must provide Communities of Interest (COI) input. 

While the census might collect some demographic numbers in each district, it doesn’t gather on-the-ground information about the communities that we live in. We’re the experts on our neighborhoods: where we eat, live, work, play, and pray. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, the Los Angeles County Citizens Redistricting Commission, and the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission need information from actual community members to fairly draw maps of state and city districts, making it possible for us to elect representatives that reflect our community interests and shape a responsive government.

Kathay Feng, the representation and redistricting director for Common Cause, tells Knock LA that the “fiercest battles” over redistricting often play out on the national level since they get the most media attention. But redistricting matters at the local level, too. Think about how our local governments and school districts stepped up, or didn’t, during the pandemic. Counties and cities implement the laws and provide the services that impact our everyday lives.

While the gubernatorial recall and Delta variant dominate current headlines in California, redistricting is an extremely important issue in our state. Where the lines are drawn will impact our livelihoods and communities for a decade, particularly affecting what legislative progress is possible over these next 10 years. Public input is a defense against gerrymandering — the process by which politicians and political operatives draw district lines in their favor, essentially guaranteeing their victory and denying communities representatives that share their concerns. “If you do not define yourself, someone else will do it for you,” warns Steven Ochoa the national redistricting director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).

Right now, Los Angeles residents can flex their civic power by submitting COI maps, submitting proposed district maps they’ve drawn themselves, or providing written or oral public testimony about their COI. What binds you together and what concerns do you all have that are impacted by the decisions of elected officials? This is the time to address policies that affect climate change, gentrification, unhoused community members, education access, and police brutality.

(PHOTO: Wikimedia)

The Role of Public Comment

“California moved away from elected officials drawing the lines to independent commissions,” explains Kirk Samuels, director of civic engagement at Community Coalition in South Los Angeles. “Now we have community groups and alliances on the ground, led by grassroots community leaders to make sure independent commissions do what the people laid out for them.” Samuels continues, “This is a process that was created by the people, for the people, and it’s driven by the people.”

Redistricting commissioners who draw the lines need to hear from local residents at public hearing meetings to ensure that COIs are kept whole, and not accidentally or maliciously broken apart. Think of COIs as Communities of (voting) Interests: groups that are geographically connected and share history, culture, and policy concerns. Independent redistricting commissions then use COIs as their building blocks for districts, adding additional blocks to districts until each includes approximately the same number of people.

In many ways, submitting public comments at these hearings is easier than voting. All you have to do is tell the commission about your neighborhood. No researching propositions or agonizing over candidates. Anyone can provide testimony, regardless of immigration status. Karen Diaz, the electoral field manager with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), points out that while many immigrants might not be able to vote now, they may be able to in the next 10 years. They deserve to have a say in what their district lines will look like.

Below is the TL;DR version of where you are being invited to provide input. Most public hearing meetings will have specific “areas” that they want to cover or certain speakers they want to prioritize, but they’re open to all Los Angeles residents, regardless of advertised districts, neighborhoods, or zip codes. This template from Common Cause can help you plan your three-minute statement at any of the below meetings.

Federal Hearings

Give Oral Testimony:

  • Friday, September 10, 3 PM – 7 PM
    Go here to make an appointment and give comment;
    Go here to watch live.
    Spanish interpretation will be provided automatically for this meeting.

Submit a COI Map:
According to their timeline, commissioners expect to draw maps from October until December, so you need to submit your map by October. Visit Draw My CA Community to get started.

Submit Written Testimony:

  • Submit via this official contact form
  • Email email hidden; JavaScript is required
  • Send mail to California Citizens Redistricting Commission, 721 Capitol Mall, Suite 260, Sacramento, CA 95814

You can go here to see all of the written COI testimony that’s already been submitted.

State Hearings

Submit Written Testimony:
Follow the same steps in the above section.

County Hearings: Los Angeles

Almost 10 million people will be separated into five districts after these county hearings. The county administers elections and houses our Public Health Department, so these meetings are critical.

Give Oral Testimony:

  • Tuesday, September 14, 7 PM
    Join via Zoom here or attend in-person at Patriotic Hall: 1816 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, CA 90015
  • Wednesday, September 22, 7 PM
    Join via Zoom here or attend in-person at San Fernando City LA County Public Library: 217 North Maclay Avenue, San Fernando, CA 91340
  • Wednesday, September 29, 7 PM
    Join via Zoom here or attend in-person at Clifton M. Brakensiek Library: 9945 Flower Street, Bellflower, CA 90706

Submit Written Testimony:
Fill out this Google form.

Submit a Map:
Visit this Mapping Software website to learn how to use the mapping tool. 

City Hearings: Los Angeles

The Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission is in charge of drawing 15 districts for a city of close to 4 million residents. 

Give Oral Testimony:

  • Saturday, September 11, 10 AM
    Find Zoom links here.
  • Submit a Map by September 11:
    Go to DistrictR to draw your map. On September 20–21, you can attend live map drawings on Zoom to see how input is being used. 

    Submit Written Testimony by September 11:
    Answer a few questions on this form.

    City Hearings: Long Beach

    All meetings are hybrid, so join virtually via Kudo or in-person. More information (including times and links) will soon be available here

    • Wednesday, September 22, 2021, City Hall
    • Wednesday, October 6, 2021, City Hall
    • Wednesday, October 20, 2021, City Hall

    School Districts

    LAUSD is the second largest district in the nation, and given that children under 12 years old are still unable to get vaccinated against COVID, we all have a vested interest in what’s happening at our schools. You can provide COI input via the Submit Public Comment form on their website or use the newly released mapping tool. FAQs and more information is available in 14 different languages.

    Current map of California’s 29th congressional district
    (PHOTO: Wikimedia)

    Gerrymandering in Los Angeles

    Understanding the importance of redistricting in California and Los Angeles means knowing the historical impact of gerrymandering in our local communities. Before the independent redistricting commissions were put in place, MALDEF had to sue Los Angeles County in 1991 to counter gerrymandering. Their legal win ultimately allowed for their candidate of choice, Gloria Molina, to be elected as Los Angeles County Supervisor that same year. While the redistricting process is now more transparent and inclusive, it does not guarantee that political power won’t be diluted along race, class, or political party lines. Samuels tells me that the “political erasure of Black people in Los Angeles” is at stake during this redistricting cycle. To fight back, the Community Coalition and 34 other organizations have formed the People’s Bloc, a group working to ensure historically disenfranchised or marginalized folks have political power. 

    A look back at Los Angeles history reveals how often neighborhoods have been harmed because of where lines were drawn. When explaining why redistricting matters on the local level, Feng recalls the freak storm that hit Watts in 2003. “You can quibble about what we should use our tax dollars for, but… all Americans agree that we pay taxes in order to have an emergency rainy day fund,” Feng says. Yet when that storm hit Watts on November 12, 2003, the government was slow to provide relief because the city was represented by three different congressional and state Senate districts. While five inches of rain and hail caused immense damage — including flooding and widespread power outages — community members were forced to bounce between representatives’ offices to demand help.

    In 2011, Watts residents testified to the newly formed California Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission, resulting in their community finally being kept within one district. But Feng stresses that the battle over redistricting is a new battle every 10 years, and many Watts residents are now raising their voice at public hearings to be kept whole on the county level. 

    Long Beach, Koreatown, and CD14 are also sites of diluted political power, explains José Del Río III, California redistricting coordinator for Common Cause. Long Beach has been divided into three different congressional districts, making it very difficult to address environmental justice concerns related to the port (among other issues). Koreatown is divided among four different Los Angeles City councilmembers (recently called out by MTV News), and CD14 is at the center of the corruption scandal involving former Councilmember Jose Huizar. Huizar’s downtown Los Angeles district was redrawn to include a more affluent area, and the councilmember allegedly proceeded to sell preferential treatment to powerful developers looking to build in the district. (Huizar faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on corruption charges.) 

    Another barrier to fair redistricting? Sometimes the census doesn’t collect data on your community, and it’s up to residents to provide input so their community is on the map. Samuel Garrett-Pate, communications director at Equality California (EQCA), says the LGBTQ+ community put themselves on the map during the last redistricting cycle in 2011, got favorable district lines, and then were able to elect their candidates of choice in San Francisco, Long Beach, Palm Springs, and San Diego. Garrett-Pate says it’s no accident that of the 150+ pieces of pro-equality legislation that have passed in California, more than half of them passed in the last 10 years once new lines were drawn by the independent commission.

    During this redistricting cycle, organizers advocated for questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the census, but that initiative was derailed by a hostile administration. They reacted by forming a coalition to compile over 800,000 data points to put their communities on the map, and now they’re mobilizing those communities to speak up at COI hearings. 

    Common Questions About COI Testimony

    If the local history of redistricting prompts you to sign up for public comment, insight from policy experts can help you plan your statement.

    What should you discuss at a federal COI hearing versus a County or City hearing?

    Feng says that, at the federal level, she might focus on small business loans and pandemic relief for mom-and-pop stores since her COI is home to numerous small businesses. At the County or City level, she would focus on issues such as language access within public services since many new immigrants live in her COI.

    How should you provide examples of map drawings?

    Steven Ochoa, the national redistricting coordinator for MALDEF, stresses that map drawers may be completely unfamiliar with your neighborhood, so make sure to include exact boundaries in your testimony. You can use street names or landmarks to identify boundaries, or draw your own COI on a map using tools like DistrictR or Draw My CA Community.

    How can you make your testimony compelling?

    Del Río says to actively define your community; don’t just say that you want to be part of a certain district or request specific areas be removed from your district. Use history, culture, demographic information, and quantitative data like socioeconomic status to explain the depth of your connections.

    Redistricting has often left communities vulnerable and disempowered, but with our participation and input, we can demand transparency and shape our governments. Moreover, COI hearings aren’t the only ways to be involved. After the end of this public comment period, all commissions will release potential maps and invite public comment on those drafts; our chance to create fair, just districts in Los Angeles continues.