LA Could Lose A Congressional Seat — Here's Why
For the first time in the state's history, California could lose a seat in Congress. That's if analysts' predictions of a slowdown in the state's population growth are confirmed by the 2020 census count. The federal government is supposed to make that determination before the end of the year, but with COVID-19 delaying census door-knocking efforts, the Census Bureau is asking Congress for an extension until April.
Whenever those state apportionment counts are released, it'll be up to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission to actually draw the geographic boundaries for each congressional district —and, if necessary, cut up an existing one and redistribute those constituents.
Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, says that if that comes to pass, he expects L.A. County — which currently sends 13 representatives to Washington D.C. — to go down to 12.
"Los Angeles County has so many districts. If the state loses a seat, the commission would have to look at which areas are growing more slowly," Levitt said. According to a recent report from Claremont McKenna College, two of the slowest growing regions in the whole state are in L.A. County.
One district Levitt expects to see on the chopping block is the 27th District in the San Gabriel Valley. The area is mostly suburban, with little room for new developments, so the population hasn't grown much over the last decade. Since other nearby areas are growing at faster rates, the 27th's lines could be redrawn to even out those numbers. But choosing which district to break up won't come down to census data alone.
"We know that the law designates that certain districts are going to take priority. It may not be easy to tell, just looking at a map," Levitt said.
To determine these priorities, the redistricting commission will need to consider the demographics of each district, because redrawing lines could mean diluting certain voices — and that's where it gets tricky. Here's what's at stake in the 27th District.
The 27th District
Rep. Judy Chu has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2009, when she became the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress. Three years later, she ran for reelection in the 27th District, which was redistricted following the 2010 census and currently includes most of Pasadena, Alhambra, Arcadia, Monterey Park and San Gabriel.
Asian Americans make up about 40% of the 27th — the largest racial or ethnic group in the district. But, as Rep. Chu recalls, that wasn't always the case.
"In years past, before the Asian Pacific Islander community had a voice in the redistricting process, our areas of concentration in the San Gabriel Valley were split up into so many districts it was like slicing up Swiss cheese," Chu said. "There was no one elected official that could represent their voices."
If California does lose a congressional seat, Chu doesn't think the 27th should be divided again. She cites the Votings Rights Act, which is intended to protect "communities of interest" —like Asian Americans — from redistricting.
"I believe that if we keep to the principle that is outlined in the Voting Rights Act we should prevail, and the API population will be kept in the same district."
Historically, though, courts don't always consider Asian Americans eligible for protection from redistricting, according to CSULB's Levitt.
"Here we have more voters that are unfortunately less protected by the Voting Rights Act in some ways," Levitt said. Since the communities that fall under the category of "Asian American" are ethnically, linguistically and politically diverse, it can be challenging to defend the population as a single group. Levitt predicts that could make the 27th more vulnerable.
But there isn't a complete consensus on that prediction. Andrew Busch, Director of the Claremont McKenna College Rose Institute of State and Local Government said the Voting Rights Act has rarely been invoked to protect Asian Americans. But if it were, Busch agrees that the diversity of Asian Americans could be a challenge:
"You have a variety of very different groups—Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans — each have their significantly different voting patterns."
He continued, "It might wind up being harder to argue that they are a disadvantaged group in some ways."
Getting Constituents Counted
Before California's redistricting commission grapples with these questions, they will still need 2020 census data. So, community outreach groups are working through a pandemic to ensure that historically undercounted groups — including Asian communities in the San Gabriel Valley — participate and preserve their community's representation.
Heng Lam Foong with Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement is working to publish animated videos about the census in English, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish through Alhambra Source, a community news website. As she does this work, the threat to the 27th District is on her mind. Foong wants to see Rep. Judy Chu stay in the same seat.
"She's not a representative for just one racial ethnic group. She represents all of us, and to lose that seat would be tragic," Foong said. She acknowledges the diversity of Asian Americans, but thinks that shouldn't disqualify the San Gabriel Valley community protections.
"I think we continue to suffer from the model minority myth — that Asians as a monolithic group have less needs than our black and brown brothers. That is truly inaccurate because you can't look at Asian Americans, or Latinos for that matter, as a block," Foong said
So far, the San Gabriel Valley is definitely participating in the census. Households in the 27th District are filling out the form at a higher rate than the state and national average.