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Redistricting in Santa Barbara County: how it works, how it affects you and how to participate

County of Santa Barbara
A map of Santa Barbara County's supervisorial districts.

For part two of our three-part series on redistricting on the Central Coast, we’re looking at how the process works in the City and County of Santa Barbara.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing district boundaries for things like House of Representatives seats, supervisorial districts, cities and more. It affects how and where we vote, and who we vote for.

Santa Barbara City and County both have independent redistricting commissions made up of citizens — or sometimes, judges. They get input from the public before drawing maps, independent of elected leaders who might want the maps drawn to benefit them.

Most counties in California don’t have independent commissions. The majority follow the more traditional model where the Board of Supervisors is in charge of approving new district lines.

Santa Barbara City’s commission is made up of three retired judges who don’t reside in Santa Barbara County, to minimize bias. They’re tasked with dividing the city up into six electoral districts.

Rebecca Bjork, assistant city administrator for Santa Barbara, said the judges’ main job is to get public input and make sure the districts are drawn fairly.

“We are very interested in making sure that the public knows this is going on, making sure we have a very robust outreach plan and are able to reach all of our public so everyone has a chance to be heard, and so that we understand the interests of all of our residents in drawing these district boundaries, so that we can get good representation in our governmental processes,” Bjork said.

The city’s independent redistricting commission has meeting agendas and schedules posted at santabarbaraca.gov and residents can provide public comment at those meetings.

In 2018, Santa Barbara County voters approved Measure G, which formed an 11-member independent redistricting commission for the county.

To be selected as a member of the commission, there are several qualifications you have to meet. At minimum, you must be a resident of the county, be a registered voter, have not changed political parties in the last five years and have voted in Santa Barbara County in at least one of the last three statewide elections.

It’s one of only a few counties in the state, including Los Angelesand San Diego, to have a redistricting commission.

Glenn Morris is the commission’s chairman and president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. He said voters approved the independent commission to more fairly represent everyone in the county.

“I think — and I'm sure this is the case in many counties, right, that there are parts of the county that don't feel as connected to the power systems and structures as others and, you know, that feel like they're not properly represented,” Morris said.

Morris said in recent years, even counties with a traditional model of having the Board of Supervisors decide district lines have introduced steps to make their process more inclusive.

“But the commission, I think, takes it a step further and not only allows for and encourages that kind of interaction on the, you know, kind of the sausage-making side of the equation, but it also puts a lot of citizens in the decision-making role,” Morris said. “So, you know now it's not just citizens trying to convince elected officials to change, you know a certain decision, but it’s a group of citizens that will actually make the determination.”

Morris said this model allows for more citizen engagement and general credibility.

“Turning it over to the citizens is probably more work, but I think in the end people will feel like there is more credibility in the outcome. Whatever we end up doing, somebody's going to think we missed,” Morris said. “Some people are going to love the outcome, some people are going to hate it. But I think that at a minimum, the hope is that people feel like they at least had a chance to say their piece and to be heard and considered.”

According to Morris, time will tell if the data — in this case, the number of citizens who get involved in the redistricting process — back up his claims about the value of an independent commission.

“The real proof of the concept is going to come really over the next, I would say, six months as we now really turn to talking about what are the communities of interest, where should the lines be drawn, who wants to be in districts with who and who doesn't and then as we get the census data and overlay that on top of it and go 'what's possible?' in terms of meeting the technical requirements,” Morris said. “So, that will be the test — to see how many maps we get submitted from citizens, how many people show up to testify for and against certain proposals.”

The Santa Barbara County Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission will host its first in-person hearing on redrawing supervisorial district boundaries on July 7 at 6 p.m.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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