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SLO County nonprofit to sue over controversial redistricting map it says violates California election law

The SLO County Board of Supervisors adopted new district lines Tuesday.
SLO County
The SLO County Board of Supervisors adopted new district lines Tuesday.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors formally adopted a controversial district map on Tuesday that makes major changes to the district boundaries in the county.

Now, a nonprofit called San Luis Obispo County Citizens for Good Government plans to sue over the map, which they say violates California election law and favors Republican interests.

The map that the board adopted is called the Patten map, named after Arroyo Grande resident Richard Patten who initially drew it.

It’s supported by the local Republican Party and was approved by the three conservative supervisors — Lynn Compton, John Peschong and Debbie Arnold — over the objections of the two liberal supervisors, Bruce Gibson and Dawn Ortiz-Legg.

The new map splits the North Coast area into three pieces, putting Los Osos in one district and Morro Bay in another.

Meanwhile Cayucos, Cambria and the rest of the North Coast region would be in a third district with the city of Atascadero.

The City of San Luis Obispo remains divided between multiple districts in the Patten map, just as it was before.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold argued in a Nov. 30 board meeting that the Patten map is more considerate of future population growth until the next census, and said she believes it does not cause damage to communities of interest.

"I want to say, I am very supportive of the Patten map. It was interesting from the first time I saw it in that it takes into account each city, it tries to keep them whole and in most of the communities [there is] minimal damage," Arnold said.

Linda Seifert disagrees. She’s a former Solano County supervisor and current San Luis Obispo County resident, and she’s one of the attorneys with SLO County Citizens for Good Government.

“I think it’s important to recognize, first and foremost, that the population change in San Luis Obispo County actually didn’t warrant redrawing the lines at all. The population change was so minimal that all the board really needed to do, really, was adopt a new ordinance that was the same as what we have in place,” Seifert said.

Instead, Seifert argues, the board chose a map that favors Republican voters and will preserve a conservative majority on the board for the next ten years if the legal challenge is unsuccessful.

A data analysis by the San Luis Obispo Tribune found that the new map increases Republican advantage in the county by creating three districts that favor Republicans and two that favor Democrats.

This is despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 6,000 voters in SLO County.

Quinn Brady is an organizer with SLO County Citizens for Good Government and a resident of Los Osos.

“My district is being broken up, and so we’ve been ripped away from our community of interest. Los Osos is now going to be grouped with communities that are not neary us and we do not share common interests with,” Brady said.

Brady points out that the new map creates deferrals and accelerations within the county, which refers to voters who have the years they vote in either moved forward or moved back.

Under the new map, Los Osos — along with Morro Bay and District 2 voters in San Luis Obispo who are no longer in District 4 — will not be able to vote for a supervisor in 2022 when those district seats come back up for re-election.

“I won’t have representation now until 2024, because I won’t get to vote in 2022 when I was supposed to. And Los Osos is an unincorporated community, we don’t have a city council, so now we essentially have no representation whatsoever, and welcome back to the wild wild west,” Brady said.

Michael Latner is a Cal Poly SLO political science professor who studies redistricting. He said it is possible that the new map violates California’s free and fair elections clause.

“When you look at just how compacted Democratic voters are in that San Luis Obispo district, and Democrats would win so overwhelmingly that you’ve set up a situation where you could easily see a minority of the county’s voters that are slim majorities in three of those districts control a majority of the seats,” Latner said.

Latner said there are a couple options for what could happen with the legal challenge to the new maps. A court could prohibit adoption of the new map and use the old one until the suit is settled, or have an expedited hearing, or order that new maps be drawn.

Latner said the controversy over the map could also lead to voters in SLO County adopting an independent redistricting commission that some counties like Santa Barbara have already adopted.

“I would hope that voters would see what has happened to them and quickly move to adopt a nonpartisan or an independent redistricting commission so that we don’t have this kind of blatant, naked seizure of power again,” Latner said.

SLO County Citizens for Good Government plans to file the lawsuit officially as well as raise $250,000 in the next few weeks to fund the legal challenge.

Linda Seifert said she’s encouraged by what she calls the bipartisan and grassroots support the organization has received from the community so far.

“It’s just heartwarming to know that there’s so many people across the political spectrum that care about ensuring that we have fair districts when this is all over,” Seifert said.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and the Republican Party of SLO County did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit or this story.

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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