Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The last time the city of San Diego went through the redistricting process, the addition of a new, ninth City Council district resulted in a complete redrawing of the map.

This year’s changes may not be so dramatic (since you can only add a new City Council district by amending the city charter), but the demographics of the city have been changing – and the nine Council districts will change along with them.

Redistricting – the drawing of political boundaries in jurisdictions – happens at the beginning of each decade after the U.S. Census tells us who lives where. In 1992, voters amended the San Diego City Charter to create an independent Redistricting Commission. The process takes place independently of the City Council and mayor. It’s the oldest independent commission in the region. This year several other jurisdictions also have their first independent commissions, including in the cities of Chula Vista and Escondido, and the county.

The commission is tasked with drawing City Council districts that are made of contiguous territory, made equal in population based on Census reports and as geographically compact as possible. Commissioners also need to try to bind districts by natural boundaries and street lines as much as they can. For example, District 3’s current boundaries include Interstate 805, Interstate 8 and State Route 94.

Districts also should be drawn in such a way that provides fair representation to racial and other legally protected groups and try to preserve other groups who want to remain united because they share other characteristics in common. In 2011, the Redistricting Commission noted in its final report, for instance, that District 9 would have the largest population of immigrants in the city and a large number of low-income residents because of their shared interests in things like affordable housing, jobs and access to transit. The commission also said that it decided to keep the South Bay portion of District 8 intact because it did not want to fragment and dilute the Latino voting population.

While this year may seem less exciting than the last round of redistricting, there’s still a lot to keep an eye on. Commissioners won’t necessarily just tweak existing City Council district lines to adjust for population changes. If they need to completely redraw districts to address all of their mandates, they can.

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The Timeline

During the last round of redistricting, the new Council district maps were finalized by August 2011. This year, the commission and the public won’t even get the Census data until the end of August or September because of days related to the pandemic and decisions made by the Trump administration.

The state has pushed its deadline for finalized maps to Dec. 15. The deadline can’t really be pushed out further because of the June 2022 primaries. The delay is adding confusion to the race to replace Councilman Chris Cate in District 6, which will be the only open seat next year. There could be major modifications to the district, meaning some candidates currently running or who may want to run might not actually live in the district come June.

There are also questions as to what the changed timeline may mean for community input on maps. The commission will hold a series of public outreach meetings in various communities and provide opportunities for communities to argue that they should remain together in one district or not be grouped with other communities.

“Communities of interest,” as they are called in the redistricting process, can advocate for themselves without seeing the Census data. For example, people living on the coast or refugees can push to remain in one district regardless of what the data shows. But having specific data showing how many people of a certain race, for example, live in which areas, can also help underrepresented communities more strategically argue that they should be grouped in such a way that maximizes their political clout.

The city’s commission has started making presentations to community planning groups to begin getting their inputs on maps and has public meetings once a month, but has yet to release a schedule for other public outreach.

Who Are the Communities of Interest?

When it comes to redistricting, communities of interest can be neighborhoods or groups of people who have common policy concerns and would benefit from being in a single city council, county or congressional district.

Local members of communities of interest define themselves, and the redistricting process gives them a chance to tell their story about who they are, what they have in common and how they compare to surrounding districts. This idea can be especially important for communities that have been traditionally left out of the political process, though anyone can define themselves.

In the last round of redistricting, some communities of interest included UC San Diego, the LGBT community in District 3 and the Asian community in District 6, according to the 2011 Final Redistricting Plan.

Some communities of interest have already emerged this year. Ranchos Peñasquitos was divided between Districts 5 and 6 in the last round of redistricting and has already started making the case that it should be reunited. That sparked backlash because of the way Ranchos Peñasquitos leaders described Mira Mesa as having higher crime rates and lower incomes.

The Kensington Talmadge Planning Group has also written to the commission requesting that those neighborhoods remain in one district and noting that they have more in common with the communities to their east, west and south than the communities to their north.

The Commissioners

Redistricting commissioners are ultimately the people looking at the Census data, listening to communities’ input and figuring out how that information translates into maps.

A panel of judges chose nine commissioners from 103 applicants to form the redistricting commission. Each commissioner represents a City Council district and in general, the make-up of the commission is supposed to reflect the make-up of the community it will serve.

But representation issues dogged this year’s commission. Due to a shortage of Latino applicants, for example, the commission only has one Latino commissioner, though Latinos make up roughly 30 percent of the city’s population.

It’s also worth paying attention to commissioner’s backgrounds in other ways. One city commissioner, Justine Nielsen, is also a well-known city lobbyist. She and her colleagues at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch are helping the IQHQ development at Navy Broadway, and the United Food and Commercial Workers hired her company to try to stop the development of a Home Depot in Mission Valley.

In other jurisdictions, Nielsen’s lobbying work might disqualify her from serving on such a commission.

Who Lives Where?

This is something we’ll know more about once the Census data is released, but we still have some idea about how demographics in the county have been changing. The Latino and Asian populations in the city, for example, have grown in the past decade based on American Community Survey data.

But the question is where those populations have expanded. San Diego has historically been a segregated city, but gentrification and other forces may have changed that in some communities – and where different racial and ethnic groups are located can play a big role in how they are represented.

For example, in 2011 District 8 was a community where Latino representation on the Council was expected. The new District 9, because it contained City Heights and surrounding areas with large numbers of Latino residents, was designed to become a second Latino empowerment district.

But changes in places like Barrio Logan and City Heights could mean that the Latino population is less concentrated in those areas. On one hand, having a less segregated city is a good thing, but if gentrification is forcing Latino populations to spread out across the city, it might dilute their political power.

American Community Survey data from 2019 that was recently presented to the redistricting commission showed that District 8 and District 4 are the only districts whose populations shrunk in the last decade.

Fighting for Reunification

Some battles from the last round of redistricting will likely resurface. One was waged in Rancho Peñasquitos, where part of the neighborhood was added to District 6 in 2011 to help make it an Asian-empowerment district. Now residents want to be reunified in one district.

But Rancho Peñasquitos isn’t the only community that was divided in 2011. Linda Vista and Clairemont Mesa were also split into two districts.

One Linda Vista resident wrote to the redistricting commission to request that Linda Vista be reunited in a single district to not diminish its clout with the Council member who represents it.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of the 2022 primary. It is in June.

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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