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Redistricting on the Central Coast: How Santa Barbara and SLO say they’re trying to avoid bias

An ArcGIS story map of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties' redistricting maps.

As part of our three-part series on redistricting on the Central Coast, we’re looking at the different systems for redistricting in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Redistricting is the process by which states, counties, cities and other entities draw their district boundaries. This affects where we vote and who we vote for.

San Luis Obispo County follows a more traditional process where the Board of Supervisors approves district lines, while Santa Barbara County is one of only a few counties in California — including Los Angeles and San Diego — that has an independent redistricting commission at the county level.

But to try to compare the effectiveness of the two models, we first have to look at redistricting at the state level.

Michael Latner is a professor of political science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo who studies redistricting and gerrymandering — which is when elected officials draw districts designed to favor a political party or group.

“At the state level, we've seen this in Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and Ohio, other states, where a majority of voters support one party but the party in power maintains its seat majority due to gerrymandering,” Latner said. “So it's a very real and a very pervasive problem and, frankly, it contributes to a lot of the political problems that we're seeing today.”

Latner has a book coming out in August that examines redistricting in all 50 states. He said states like California, which has an independent redistricting commission, are less gerrymandered because of those independent bodies.

“Indeed, we found that — compared to either partisan maps drawn by legislatures and maps drawn by courts or other entities that occasionally draw maps as a result of litigation and other factors — we found that, in both cases, independent commissions did a better job at adopting unbiased maps, and I think part of that has to do with citizens and the involvement of citizens in the process,” Latner said.

This contrast between independent commissions and elected official-led redistricting processes is playing out here on the Central Coast. Latner said Santa Barbara County’s independent commission means it’s less partisan and engages citizens more than the traditional mode.

“There's really no question whether it does or it doesn't,” Latner said. “Frankly, San Luis Obispo County's process is about the worst process you could design, and the idea that we're still allowing legislators to draw their own districts is rather absurd.”

But Kristin Eriksson, an analyst for SLO County’s Administrative Office, said their system is designed to minimize politics in the redistricting process.

“Obviously this changes who represents who for the next ten years, and that's inherently political. However, our process is designed to take the politics out of the actual drawing of the maps. We're using county staff and it's a non-partisan process,” Eriksson said.

Eriksson said that having the county staff work on redrawing the lines makes the potential for gerrymandering less likely to happen.

“That's the idea behind both using a staff model — county staff are trained to not be partisan in our activities — but also in the fact that we are adhering to the Fair Maps Act, which is, by its nature, designed to try to pull the politics out of the decision-making process,” Eriksson said.

Still, Latner said, the Board of Supervisors ultimately votes to adopt or reject the new lines — even if they’re drawn by county staff with public input in mind.

“What you're doing is you're allowing the majority — in this case a close majority, a 3-2 Republican majority on the County Board of Supervisors — you're allowing themselves to entrench themselves in power. And this happened in jurisdiction after jurisdiction,” Latner said. “You have a bare majority that controls the process, and in controlling the process they end up creating a system that entrenches them in power, which protects them from and insulates them from public accountability.”

Latner said he feels independent commissions should be more widespread as a way to prevent gerrymandering.

“It is a system that has proved quite effective in reducing bias in districting plans. And we actually are a model for the rest of the country,” Latner said.

You can submit your own maps or comments to Santa Barbara County’s Independent Redistricting Commission, as well as find their meeting schedule, here.

You can do the same with SLO County on their redistricting website.

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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