San Francisco’s new Assembly districts befuddle residents

‘I would defer to the commission on why they made these changes’

San Francisco’s electoral map for its two state Assembly districts might soon look very different, leaving some residents confused about who represents them in Sacramento and how to best organize politically around important issues.

For the last decade, Assembly Districts 17 and 19 have been largely easy to demarcate, separating The City clearly into its east and west sides. But the new maps drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and set to be submitted for approval by Dec. 27 show substantially different electoral lines that instead weave in and out of neighborhoods and put entire swaths of The City into a new district.

“I would defer to the commission on why they made these changes, but this is definitely a district with some significant changes,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who is running to represent Assembly District 17 in a special election in February. (The new maps would not go into effect until June.)

The commission had not responded to questions about its work by Friday.

One such change would move areas near the Panhandle, such as Haight-Ashbury, Cole Valley and North of Panhandle (NoPa), from District 17 into District 19 and neighborhoods such as West Portal, St. Francis Wood and Forest Hill from District 19 into District 17.

“It’s a confusing jigsaw border that does not demarcate any community of interest that I’m aware of, and it will reduce the voting power of the residents through confusion,” said Mike Chen, a Pacific Heights resident and the Assembly District 17 delegate for the California Democratic Party. When the new maps go into effect, Chen will live in District 19.

How these changes to the electoral map will impact San Francisco politics is not yet clear.

Cally Wong, director of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) Council in San Francisco, said that while she had yet to do extensive analysis on the proposed map, her initial reaction was that the makeup of constituents would look meaningfully different. Until recently, both districts were represented by a member of the Asian American-Pacific Islander community, Assemblymember David Chiu representing District 17 and Phil Ting representing District 19.

“I think moving forward this could change things,” Wong said. “I don’t know how that will play out in terms of voters and who represents who yet. I think that still remains to be seen.”

Redistricting happens across California every 10 years along with a new census. It’s overseen by a 14-member commission that includes five Republicans, five Democrats and four people without party preference. People apply, then are whittled down by the California State Legislature before ultimately being randomly drawn through a lottery by the California State Auditor.

This commission is tasked with a daunting challenge: draw statewide electoral districts that provide relatively equal representation; maintain contiguous borders so all parts of a district are connected; minimize the division of “communities of interest” with shared priorities and lived experiences; and ensure all people have equal opportunity to elect representatives.

Community groups can submit their own maps, and the commission goes through months of public meetings, public comment periods and draft maps followed by revisions before landing at the final product. Though it’s almost always a messy process, doing it this way is designed to safeguard the integrity of California’s electoral map.

California is one of only eight states with independent redistricting commissions. Voters approved its creation in 2008 with a ballot measure designed to protect against gerrymandering, which occurs all over the country — and within the state — when electoral district borders are drawn to silence some voices and ensure others maintain power.

Members of Chinatown and North Beach narrowly staved off potential political disenfranchisement at the hands of the redistricting process.

The Redistricting Commission originally proposed maps that drew the electoral dividing lines along Broadway Street and Columbus Avenue. Anything north of Broadway and South of Columbus would have been put in District 19, which would have split two of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods into two.

Such a fissure would have threatened the ability of residents, many of whom are immigrants and earn low incomes, to organize for political advocacy. It also would have separated the interests at the state level of otherwise tightly knit communities of Chinatown and North Beach.

“The concern for us was just that if that portion got cut out then you’re effectively disenfranchising all the residents of that area and most of the businesses from their respective communities of interest,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “It’s very concerning because you’ve effectively eliminated the purpose of the assembly district.”

Community leaders from Chinatown and North Beach say they found out about these maps late in the redistricting process, so their mobilization to push back against them was quick and chaotic. They held a press conference on Dec. 17 ahead of the commission’s final public meeting on Dec. 19.

But it was also effective.

Commissioners retooled the map slightly, moving the border off of Columbus Avenue to Jones Street.

According to Wong, this outcome was the “best case scenario” given the fire drill situation, but acknowledged there needed to be more attention paid to redistricting at the state level earlier on the next time around.

“The lesson learned coming out of the pandemic — and maybe now re-entering the pandemic — is that a lot of our immigrant communities, a lot of our low-income communities, are still really struggling,” Wong said. “We need to pay attention to redistricting a lot sooner because … this was almost a big problem. It would have taken power away from our most vulnerable communities.”

Many local groups devote their limited resources to advocating around redistricting at the local level for supervisor districts, but looking ahead both Yeung and Wong acknowledged that there should be a balance with similar work statewide, too.

“We’re still assessing right now how we got to this point, but I’m just very grateful and very proud that so many local leaders were extremely willing to jump in to make our voice heard,” Yeung said. “That makes me feel pretty optimistic about where our communities are at right now.”

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