Polling the People: How has redistricting changed Santa Barbara County?
Santa Barbara County is sometimes called a “land of extremes.” North County is a mainly-agricultural area home to a Latino majority, while residents in South County are generally white and affluent.
Until two years ago, the North County cities of Guadalupe and Santa Maria weren't grouped together in one of the five supervisor districts. In December 2021, the county used an independent commission to redraw the map in hopes of better matching residents with the issues that matter to them.
That was almost two years ago. The question now is, did it work?
Bridging the gap in North County
In North Santa Barbara County, the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe sit on either side of Highway 166. It’s a two-lane highway that runs through seemingly endless agricultural fields. Cars, pickup trucks and big-rigs zoom by: farmworkers driving to work, truckers hauling strawberries, parents taking their kids to school and much more.
Until the last redistricting cycle, the cities on either side were represented by two different county supervisors, yet both they faced similar issues — including how to improve Highway 166.
“So it was not my problem, it's your problem, it's not my problem, it's your problem, back and forth type of thing," said Daniel Segura with CAUSE, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable economies on the Central Coast.
Segura said improving safety and traffic conditions on Highway 166 was one reason the organization wanted Santa Maria and Guadalupe to be represented by one supervisor, in one district.
In 2021, an independent redistricting commission redrew Santa Barbara County’s five supervisor districts, and CAUSE got their wish. The commission put Guadalupe and most of Santa Maria in the same district.
Segura said that’s given lower-income, Latino residents better representation, and said it has streamlined solutions to a number of issues, including Highway 166.
“One issue that’s kind of resolved is, it's not no-man's land anymore. It's something that can be addressed and can be worked on efficiently," he said.
Segura said redistricting has also improved political participation, which is something he has seen at town halls.
“I've started to see a lot more of that engagement with the Latino community and the low-income community, that really feel like they can actually access their supervisor," Segura said.
Time will tell
Still, that evidence is anecdotal. Cal Poly Political Science Professor Michael Latner said it’s still too early to tell if redistricting really did end up making people in Santa Barbara County more engaged in the political process.
“You really can't draw too many conclusions from so few elections," Latner said.
Latner said he believes the new maps do better represent the people of North County than the old ones, when they were grouped with whiter, wealthier South County cities. But he also said many Guadalupe and Santa Maria residents face barriers that more equitable district lines can’t just solve.
“The number one best predictor of turnout is education [and] socioeconomic status. You've got quite a lot of variance across Santa Barbara County, and so that's primarily what you're seeing reflected, and that's going to be a result of something that's independent from the districts," he said.
Still, he said the new maps are an important step in the right direction and that he believes other counties should follow suit.
What about turnout?
One of the main metrics of political engagement is voter turnout, which is uneven across Santa Barbara County.
Steve Lavagnino represents the newly-drawn District 5 on the Board of Supervisors. He had no role in redistricting this time around, because of the independent commission — and he thinks that’s how it should be.
"I totally supported it because I just felt that no matter what the citizens came up with, it would be far superior to anything that we did," he said.
While Lavagnino appreciates the new process, he agrees with Latner that it’s difficult to tell whether it made a meaningful difference in voter engagement. He pointed out that the areas he represents — Guadalupe, most of Santa Maria and some unincorporated areas — still have very low turnout.
In last year’s general election, his district had the lowest turnout rate in the county by far, coming in at about 34 percent. That’s almost half the turnout of District 1 in east Santa Barbara County: an affluent area that came in with the highest turnout rate.
Yet, Lavagnino knows people in his district care.
“For as much participation as I get in my office and people coming to meetings and [town halls], you know, everybody shows up. But then you look at the turnout for voting, and it's just sad," he said.
So, what keeps more people in North Santa Barbara County from participating in the political process? Next week on Polling the People, we’ll dig into that question and hear about possible solutions.
Polling the People is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.