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3 Takeaways From Southern California’s New Draft Congressional Maps

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard speaks at a microphone. She is wearing glasses and a pink jacket with black patterned piping on the lapels.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA).
(Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images)
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The California political world is in a tizzy over the release this week of proposed new district maps for members of Congress, state Assembly and Senate, and Board of Equalization seats.

New boundaries mean new voters and constituents for politicians to court, potentially changing whose voices are heard at the highest levels of government. They could also spell doom for some incumbents — Democrats and Republicans — who are drawn into seats with unfavorable voter ratios. (Orange County Democrat Katie Porter called the process “sort of terrifying.”)

As of now, a longtime L.A. Democrat stands to lose her district, two rookie Republicans in Orange County could lose some of their core supporters, and a Republican L.A. County seat could further advantage a Democrat.

The balance of power in the House of Representatives hinges on just a handful of seats in the upcoming 2022 midterms.

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This is all happening as part of a regular process called redistricting. Once every 10 years, when the U.S. Census releases its official population figures, political districts must be redrawn to have roughly the same number of people — for congressional districts, that’s about 761,000 constituents per California House member.

Other factors also have to be considered: districts should be contiguous and compact. The Voting Rights Act also requires that the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups be protected, and “communities of interest” be kept together where possible.

California voters approved the creation of an independent redistricting commission back in 2008. It has 14 members — five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents — appointed by nonpartisan auditors. Their new draft legislative and congressional district maps are available in various formats on the commission’s website, including an interactive map viewer.

Changes to the drafts are likely following a 14-day public input period, Commissioner Sara Sadhwani told us.

“What we have in front of us is a basic architecture for our path forward,” she said. “And we acknowledge we still have a lot of work to do.”

Sadhwani said she and fellow commissioners are on a “crusade” to get more people involved in the process, after holding public hearings all summer: “We want folks to tell us more about what's wrong with the maps: what do they like about them? What do they hate about them? Where do they think that we need to make improvements? Tell us about your communities — what holds your community together? In what ways is your community unified in a geographic region? And why do you need to be kept together for adequate and responsive representation?”

There’s a form to provide written input, and the commission takes calls during meetings. The upcoming schedule and instructions for how to weigh in are available here.

The final maps must be certified by the Secretary of State by Dec. 27.

“Overall, there’s not a ton of surprises here,” said Mindy Romero, director of USC's Center for Inclusive Democracy. “There are some well-known Republican and Democratic districts that are changing, but big picture, the partisan balance looks very similar to our previous maps.”

LA Loses A Congressional Seat — For Now

There’s no getting around it: Because of slowing population growth, California is losing a congressional seat for the first time in state history.

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And that appears to be Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard’s 40th District, which currently contains parts of East L.A., Downey, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Huntington Park, and South L.A.

The draft maps eliminate the seat, breaking it up in pieces for neighboring districts to absorb. Those are represented by fellow Democrats Alan Lowenthal, Nanette Barragán and Jimmy Gomez. Critics are already pointing out that this splits up the district with the highest proportion of Latino voters in the country, according to Census figures.

Roybal-Allard was the first Mexican American woman elected to Congress when she won the seat in 1992. She carries a family tradition of politics: her father, Edward Roybal, served in Congress for 30 years. Roybal-Allard was also the first woman to chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Her age — she is 80 — and recent lackluster fundraising have raised questions about possible retirement plans. But Roybal-Allard has given no indication she's ready to step aside. In lieu of an interview, the congresswoman released a statement:

“I am aware of the current draft map and I have concerns about the protections of voting rights districts and in particular the diluting of the vote in our Latino communities. I look forward to the commission appropriately addressing these issues before final maps are approved.”
  • In December 2021, Roybal-Allard and Lowenthal were among a number of Democrats who announced their plans to retire.

Sadhwani emphasized that because of its diversity, density and economic disparities, L.A. County is “one of the most difficult places in the United States to redistrict.”

Populations have shifted in the decade since the last census, she added.

“We did not have a magic eraser to just go and erase the seats,” Sadhwani said. “We cleared the map and started from scratch. We take all of those factors into account. It was important for us to make sure that the political voice of communities of color was not being diluted.”

“There are going to be winners and losers, no matter what, in this process,” Romero said. “And we're not going to know exactly what happens until all of the conversation and all of the public input happens. But a key part of why we have the Citizens Redistricting Commission here in California is to consider the question of representation and make sure that the process is one that's not going to disenfranchise California's historically underrepresented groups.”

In the draft maps, more than a dozen California congressional districts include populations with more than 50% Latino voting-aged citizens, though some advocates had pushed for more.

Some L.A.-based political organizations are breathing a sigh of relief at the commission’s proposed maps, because longtime members of Congress Karen Bass and Maxine Waters were not drawn into the same seat — an idea floated in an earlier redistricting “visualization.” Prominent Black leaders had lobbied the commission to preserve two Black House seats in South L.A.

Orange County Gets More Competitive

The battleground House seats of Orange County may become even tougher to hold onto for several incumbents.

If the drafts hold, Representatives Porter, Young Kim and Michelle Steel would no longer live in their districts. While that’s not technically a problem — members of Congress do not legally have to reside in their districts — living miles away from the people you represent makes for an awkward conversation with voters come reelection time. (In 2022, Kim and Steel will be up for reelection for the first time.)

As the Cook Political Report notes, Republican Steel’s coastal district loses Little Saigon under the proposal, shifting its voter composition from a district that voted for President Joe Biden by two points in 2020 to a district that went for the president by nine points.

Democrat star Porter, meanwhile, loses left-leaning voters in Irvine — going from a +11 Biden district to one that voted for the President by just four points.

As for Lowenthal, he’s moved north in the draft and loses a swath of Orange County. By and large, the statewide commission created fewer congressional districts that cross county lines.

That held true for Rep. Kim, whose 39th district currently straddles parts of L.A., Orange and San Bernardino Counties. The commission’s draft puts most of her district in O.C., stretching southwest to encompass Westminster’s Little Saigon and Seal Beach.

The shakeups already have opponents sharpening their knives for midterm fights and are fueling speculation about sitting House members possibly jumping districts to run in friendlier races.

Update November 2022

Another Close Garcia v. Smith Showdown

The 25th District, located in North L.A. and Eastern Ventura counties, has seen a whirlwind of political scandal in recent years and become an intense partisan battleground.

A quick recap: After flipping a longtime Republican stronghold blue, Democrat Katie Hill resigned the seat in the fall of 2019 after the House Ethics Committee began investigating allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a congressional staffer, which she denied. Also, nude photos of her were published online without her consent, amid her split from an allegedly abusive spouse.

Last year, Republican Congressman Mike Garcia defeated a former state Assemblymember, Democrat Christy Smith, in both a special election to fill Hill’s seat and the Nov. 2020 general election. But their last matchup was decided by only 333 votes. Smith has said she’ll run again, setting this up to be one of the most competitive seats in the country next year.

The draft commission maps remove a slice of conservative Simi Valley from Garcia’s district, moving him farther east to pick up bigger areas of Lancaster and Palmdale — shedding Republicans and adding Biden voters.

Will it make a difference? The 25th has been trending blue for years, but Garcia was able to win partly by attracting split-ticket voters who backed both him and President Biden on their Nov. 2020 ballots. Smith’s 2022 campaign is in full swing, ready for round three.

Update November 2022
  • In what's now the 27th District, Garcia beat Smith in the Nov. 8 election with about 53% of the votes.

What questions do you have about Southern California?