- December 1, 2021
- Data Visualization
After highly contentious fights over the 2020 Census, states across the country are working through the redistricting process to redraw local, county, state, and federal legislative maps. As this process unfolds, political fights are getting heated (as they have time and again throughout history), as 10 years’ worth of high-stakes political consequences are on the line.
In July 2019, we wrote about the Utah Joint Redistricting Committee (JRC) and their 2010 efforts to engage the public in the redistricting process. The JRC gave the public access to mapping software, giving them the opportunity to submit map proposals for both the Congressional and state school board districts. The aim was to educate the voting public about how district lines are drawn, empower voters with a say in the process, and earn their trust through engagement. Ultimately, the legislature had the final say about where to draw the lines and they chose their own path for Congressional districts. However, the school board lines were redrawn using the public’s input, setting a new precedent for public engagement and involvement in redistricting.
Following Utah’s lead, the Los Angeles County Citizens Redistricting Commission (LA County CRC) has adapted the Utah process and taken it a step further for the 2021 redistricting process.
An iterative, citizen-driven redistricting process
The LA County CRC is an independent commission responsible for drawing five county supervisorial district lines. According to the Campaign Legal Center, independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) are a “body separate from the legislature that is responsible for drawing electoral districts” and is a “voter-centric reform used to ensure that voters decide how electoral districts are drawn.” While most states are still following the traditional, legislature-dominant process, California is among nine states in the United States that use IRCs for redistricting.
In 2016, Senate Bill 958 was passed in the California State Legislature, requiring Los Angeles County to assemble an independent commission for all future decennial redistricting efforts. The Commission is made up of 14 county residents that “reflect the county’s racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity” and are required to have analytical skills relevant to redistricting, an ability to comprehend and apply State and Federal laws, be impartial, and have an appreciation for the diverse demographics and geography of the County.” Los Angeles County, along with nine other local governments across the state of California, are conducting IRC-driven redistricting processes for the first time this year.
From June to September, the LA County CRC conducted 12 public hearings to gather input from county residents to best understand the unique characteristics of their communities. Residents could tune in virtually or attend in person (five of the 12 public hearings were hybrid) and could submit written comments and feedback online.
Los Angeles County also provided residents with access to a free, online, cloud-based mapping software to draw their own district lines and submit map proposals for the Commission’s consideration. Since the software is in the cloud, citizens can access the platform from any computer using personal login credentials. The platform also allows members of the public to share ideas and proposals with one another. While Los Angeles County has provided this free software, residents can also submit map proposals using any software programs or even hand-drawn maps. Residents have been submitting maps since January 2021.
To ensure that residents could use the software, the county contracted a demographic and mapping firm to work with Thai V. Le, GIS specialist and clerk for the LA County CRC to conduct extensive training sessions with members of the public; large training sessions were available in both English and Spanish, and one-on-one training sessions were available in any of Los Angeles County’s 12 threshold languages. Supplemental training materials were also posted on the website and the LA County CRC’s YouTube Channel to help end-users learn the software on their own time. Residents can submit maps on a rolling basis until Commissioners select a final map, based on public input and discussion, by December 15.
After the first series of 12 public hearings were completed on September 29th, the Commissioners developed three different map models that incorporate all the public input regarding their communities of interest. The official software platform, which included the California Census data (adjusted to include the state’s incarcerated population), was launched on October 7th. Once that data was included, the Commissioners developed their own map proposals using this software.
From November to December, the Commission will hold an additional four public hearings to gather feedback on the proposed map options. These hearings allow residents and members of the public to submit oral or written comments in favor of, or in opposition to, the map proposals. Members of the public have also submitted modified versions of the maps that Commission is considering. As of November 21st, 58 maps have been submitted; the Commissioners have identified six options for further consideration.
After each public hearing and meeting, Le and Gayla Kraetsch-Hartsough, executive director of the LA County CRC, collate the public feedback for the Commissioners’ review. The Commissioners delineate their agreed-to changes for the demographer to make. The Commission refines the maps through an iterative process until the public hearings have all been conducted. The final map will be chosen by the Commissioners, followed by the release of a technical report documenting the process and explaining how the final map was chosen. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will not be able to change or alter it.
This process differs greatly from Los Angeles County’s former redistricting methods. “You have to understand that this is very much an experiment of democracy in action,” said Kraetsch-Hartsough. In the past, an advisory commission known as the Boundary Redistricting Committee provided suggestions to the Los Angeles County Supervisors on map proposals. There was one public hearing about the proposals, which attracted more than 1,000 attendees. Residents could submit map proposals online to the advisory commission, but they needed: 1) a large computer at home capable of processing large, complex databases and 2) ideally a GIS background to build and submit maps. Regardless of the advisory commission’s or the public’s feedback, the Los Angeles County Supervisors had the final say on where district lines were to be drawn.” In 2011, they ignored the advisory commission’s suggestions and redrew the submitted map proposals.
Independence + digital engagement + hybrid meetings = Marginalized voices are heard.
By establishing an independent commission, Los Angeles County has seen new and positive energy from the public around redistricting. “When the politicians no longer have power in the redistricting process, and the public is in control, people feel like their voices actually matter in the debate and they speak up,” said Kraetsch-Hartsough.
While the LA County CRC has seen many familiar residents’ faces during the process, they have also seen new energy, particularly from young voters, immigrants, and historic communities of interest. Kraetsch-Hartsough continued, “we saw younger people, many college age students and young adults, enter the conversation” and submit maps. She went on to explain how exciting and important that is for future redistricting efforts, as “they bring a different kind of energy and a different perspective on LA that is important for determining the future direction of the County.”
Kraetsch-Hartsough and Le both underscored the importance of digital engagement for opening up access to the public, getting more people involved, and collecting feedback. By moving the mapping software to the cloud, “people are able to explore the tool and access the software from anywhere,” said Le, “and I am a huge proponent of using maps as a way to visualize very complex issues such as redistricting. People are more engaged when they can visually see how things are going to change.” Additionally, by including multiple methods for gathering feedback, including online forms, emails, and other communications, those who were not able to attend in-person meetings can share their ideas and concerns as part of the public record.
Lastly, by enabling virtual access to all meetings and public hearings, people across Los Angeles County who would otherwise never be able to make it to a meeting could do so from the comfort of their homes. This was important not just for pandemic-related challenges, but for those who do not have access to transportation, have irregular working hours, work multiple jobs, have family obligations, or simply do not have the time to participate in person. “With the virtual and hybrid models, people were literally tuning in to watch our hearings as they prepared dinner for their families,” explained Kraetsch-Hartsough. Some nonprofit organizations offered their meeting rooms to community members with limited Internet access or computer literacy, so they could still provide public testimony in the virtual venue.
“Going virtual and hybrid created logistical challenges for the Commission,” said Kraetsch-Hartsough “but we ensured that we were not eliminating or disqualifying people due to systemic barriers that formerly stopped them from getting involved.” She and Le both believe that these experiences will transform the future of public engagement, not just for redistricting, but for all matters relevant to local government.
Kraetsch-Hartsough also spoke about the powerful impact the LA County CRC’s work has had in the County, saying “many of the communities we hear from are communities who feel disenfranchised...who feel they haven’t been heard from before. We’ve heard from voices from East LA, Central LA, San Gabriel Valley, Antelope Valley, San Fernando Valley, the coast… I can go on and on about how they have been involved. Not only registered voters but noncitizen immigrants who present their needs. Community-based organizations, such as the People’s Bloc which includes 27 non-profit organizations, have drawn a map, and rallied marginalized communities to make sure their voices are heard.”
Despite their success, challenges persist for the LA County CRC
Despite its success in engaging the public, especially considering all the pandemic complications, there are still a number of key challenges that the LA County CRC wants to improve on:
- Bridging the digital divide: A recurring theme over the last two years was the persistence of the digital divide, and how the move to the digital world left some marginalized groups without access to the critical services they needed. The LA County CRC was very sensitive to this fact and worked to make the redistricting process as accessible as possible, working with community-based organizations to connect with disadvantaged and disconnected groups. However, without ubiquitous connectivity, there will always be some groups or individuals that are unable to get involved.
- Limited hybrid capabilities: The LA County CRC was not initially equipped with the proper technology and equipment to enable hybrid public meetings, and so they had to partner with several college campuses and public institutions to host them. “Local governments are just not equipped with the right technology to do this at scale,” said Kraetsch-Hartsough, “This made it difficult for us to engage the public effectively in hybrid settings during this process.”
- A large public learning curve: While the LA County CRC conducted extensive trainings and individual consults with the public to help end-users overcome challenges of usability, Le acknowledged the significant learning curve for the public. Le spent several hours working one-on-one with some residents to ensure they could use the software and participate in the engagement process. He hopes that mapping software vendors can produce a more accessible and flexible tool for users of all experience and skill levels that can be used for future redistricting efforts.
Looking ahead to improve future redistricting efforts in Los Angeles County
Looking ahead, Kraetsch-Hartsough and Le believe that the work underway at the LA County CRC is going to transform redistricting for the better, but they believe there is still room for improvement.
Right now, each local government has to procure their own mapping software and upload the redistricting data after it is made available by the state. At the next redistricting cycle, they hope that the state of California will provide the same mapping software for all local governments with the Census data already uploaded. This approach will help to streamline the work of the IRCs and level the playing field for local governments with limited time, budgets, and resources.
Additionally, they feel strongly that hybrid meetings are the most effective way to engage the public and ensure greater access to public meetings. Yet Kraetsch-Hartsough explained that, “until government makes investments in setting up meeting rooms with hybrid technology, we will not be able to scale hybrid meetings which are so critical for the future of public engagement.”
Lastly, the mapping software was made more accessible by moving to the cloud, but “not much has changed in terms of the user interface,” explained Le. “The software is really only usable for folks with a GIS background or those comfortable with learning new technical skills.” Le believes that the technology will not be truly accessible until the user-interface is more friendly to a broader user-base. His hope is that the mapping software vendors will build a program that residents without a GIS background would be able to use more easily by the next redistricting cycle. “Until then,” he said, “the digital divide will never truly be closed.”