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Government: Districts are being redrawn statewide, which could have impact on SCV’s voice

Posted: April 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

When lawmakers last drew new district lines after the 2000 Census, they divided the Santa Clarita Valley between two state Senate districts, confusing voters — as evidenced by the recent state Senate special election — and weakening SCV residents’ influence in Sacramento.

The process is well under way to redraw lines based on the 2010 Census; statewide public meetings with voters begin this week.

But this time, the process is being handled differently: Rather than allowing lawmakers to decide their own constituency, the process is being handled by the independent California Redistricting Commission.

The commission’s stated aim in its upcoming public meetings? Learning how to keep cities and communities like the SCV from being divided, which election-law experts say dilutes a group’s voice.

Whether SCV residents can convince the commission to keep their community whole this time isn’t clear. The commission hasn’t yet planned a stop in the SCV, and due to its size, the area will have to at least share its state Senate district with a neighboring community.

Districts now and then
The SCV is divided into two state Senate districts: the 19th to the west, and the 17th the east.

During a special election in November to fill the state Senate’s 17th District seat vacated by Sen. George Runner — who was elected to the Board of Equalization — poll workers at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center said many voters who came to the polls weren’t eligible to vote because they lived outside the district.

Voters were confused because the current legislative map splits parts of Newhall into the two separate districts, poll workers said.

Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, who was elected in November to represent the 17th District, said she hoped all of the communities in the mostly high-desert district would remain intact once the new boundaries are drawn. Currently, her district starts at the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line, dips south to take in a portion of the Santa Clarita Valley, then extends up to the Antelope Valley, and as far east as Victorville, Hesperia and Apple Valley. The rest of the SCV falls into the 19th Senate District, which also shares portions of Ventura County with the 17th District.

“Once (the commissioners) get on the bus, get to Santa Clarita and drive almost an hour to the Antelope Valley, I think they’ll get a bigger picture of why the high desert needs to be together,” Sharon Runner said.

According to the U.S. Constitution, legislative districts must have the same number of residents, whether they’re congressional districts or state Senate or Assembly districts. The goal of each census is to ensure the districts are fairly balanced.

With its current population of about 250,000, the Santa Clarita Valley isn’t large enough to be its own Senate or Assembly district.

Assembly district typically represent about 500,000 people each, said Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, whose district encompasses the entire SCV. Senate districts are supposed to take in two Assembly districts.

Whatever happens when the latest districts are drawn, the Santa Clarita Valley will have to share a Senate and an Assembly district with nearby communities. The question becomes: Which ones?

There remains the possibility that it could be divided again, as it was 10 years ago between Senate districts.
It’s important, then, for residents to show up at the Redistricting Commission meetings to advocate for an intact Santa Clarita Valley, Smyth said.

If the planned meetings are any indication, the Santa Clarita Valley isn’t getting the first slice of the pie. Dozens of meetings are scheduled. But none so far has been planned in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Public meetings are slated for April 30 in the San Fernando Valley and May 1 in the Antelope Valley. It’s crucial for Santa Clarita Valley residents to attend either meeting, or even both, to keep the area politically whole, said Jeanne Raya, a commission member from San Gabriel.

“The only way we can figure out how to keep people together who share common political and economic beliefs is if people come and tell us this,” Raya said. “I don’t know what a perfect (legislative) map would be. ... We’ll try to respect city and county boundaries as best we can.”

Commission’s impact
The commission’s decisions could affect long-serving Santa Clarita Valley politicians.

U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, has served in Congress for almost 20 years and has enjoyed overwhelming support in his 25th Congressional District.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 8,000 voters in the district. McKeon has seldom been seriously challenged for his seat.

McKeon defeated challenger Jackie Conaway in November. He won more than 60 percent of the votes.

But McKeon supports the commission’s mission of creating more competitive elections, according to McKeon’s spokeswoman Lindsey Mask, in a recent email.

“It is just inherently wrong to have legislators drawing their own districts, because then you have legislators picking their voters, as opposed to voters picking their legislators,” Mask said. “The commission is supposed to take partisanship out of the redistricting process, which should make districts more competitive, and that is something the congressman supports.”

New process
Using U.S. Census data, the commission must redraw the state’s congressional, state Senate, state Assembly and state Board of Equalization districts.

Historically, drawing legislative boundaries every 10 years has been handled by lawmakers and California’s governor.

The process has been highly partisan with politicians drawing districts that tend to protect Republican and Democrat incumbents rather than the collective interests of their constituents, said Rick Hasen, a visiting professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law.

The California Redistricting Commission was formed by voters in 2008 to replace the process of legislative-drawn districts with commission-drawn districts, which critics say should be more equitable. None of the 14 commissioners is from the SCV.

Drawing the new legislative map is still in its early stages, and it will be months before California’s new political map is complete.

“No lines have been drawn; no votes have been taken,” Hasen said.

But the commission has its ears open to new ideas, he said.

City and county officials from across the state have already sent the commission letters lobbying for their areas’ interests, Raya said.

The city’s legislative subcommittee is planning to meet within the next two weeks to discuss if Santa Clarita should have an official response for the commission, said Michael Murphy, the city’s intergovernmental relations officer.

No matter what a final map looks like, political groups will likely challenge the legitimacy of the map in court and argue it violates voting laws, Hasen said.

“There are going to be growing pains,” Hasen said.

If the commission draws boundaries fairly, the Santa Clarita Valley won’t be split up, Smyth said.

“If (the commission) follows through with its charge of keeping communities of interest together ... all of the Santa Clarita Valley would be incorporated in one Senate district and one Assembly district,” Smyth said.

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