Redrawing San Francisco’s political map

Redistricting task force to plot new supervisorial districts

San Francisco’s political map is being redrawn, but not all neighborhoods will be impacted in the same way.

Following the national census every 10 years, The City is required to change its political boundaries so each supervisorial district is roughly equal in population. The process needs to happen remarkably quickly: By April 15, the nine-member redistricting task force will have to finalize the new lines.

Their thorniest challenge will be what to do with District 6, which encompasses SoMa, Mission Bay, the Tenderloin and Treasure Island. As the district that accommodated the vast majority of The City’s population growth over the past decade, District 6 will have to shrink geographically. Which neighborhoods get chopped off of District 6 and tacked on to other districts could have profound political implications.

With these stakes in mind, the redistricting task force is planning for an extensive public outreach process, including at least one in-person event in every district early next year. The public is also invited to the body’s regular virtual meetings the first Monday and third Wednesday of each month.

“I want as much public involvement as humanly possible,” said Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of the San Francisco NAACP, and the chair of the task force. “It’s important that we try to draw districts that give people a fair chance to be represented, and be represented in a way that the people who represent them have to listen.”

According to the City Charter, districts must conform to legal requirements, including one that they be equal in population. Population variations between districts should be “limited to 1% from the statistical mean unless additional variations, limited to 5% of the statistical mean, are necessary to prevent dividing or diluting the voting power of minorities and/or to keep recognized neighborhoods intact.”

Redistricting must also follow the Voting Rights Act, which provides specific rules regarding the voting power of minorities and other protected groups. The redistricting task force — made up of three members appointed by the mayor, three appointed by the Board of Supervisors and three appointed by the Elections Commission — will have the final say on what the new districts look like.

The stakes are highest for residents of D6, which is currently 30% too populous relative to the 11-district average. District 6 is “so out of whack to the rest of the population,” Townsend said. “Of all the various concerns, and all the diversity that exists, how do we make sure we can be fair to the largest number of people? That’s going to be the challenge.”

Compared to D6, no other district needs to change much to fulfill the population criteria — yet another sign of The City’s lopsided approach to growth and development in recent years. District 10, which includes Potrero Hill, Bayview and Sunnydale, all neighborhoods that have seen a smattering of new development over the past decade, is 9% over-populated, meaning it will have to shrink slightly. Districts 8 and 5, which include the Castro and the Fillmore, respectively, are also above the mean population, but by less than 5% so they may not have to shrink at all.

The remaining seven districts all have populations lower than the ideal district size, which means their population growth over the past decade lagged that of The City as a whole. District 3, including the Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf, is 9% under-populated. Districts 1 and 4, encompassing the Richmond and the Sunset, respectively, are 8% under-populated. These districts will need to get bigger geographically in order to increase their population.

Under redistricting following the census, San Francisco is required to change its political boundaries so that all of its 11 supervisorial districts are roughly equal in population. Terry Forte/The Examiner

Under redistricting following the census, San Francisco is required to change its political boundaries so that all of its 11 supervisorial districts are roughly equal in population. Terry Forte/The Examiner

San Francisco’s district lines have remained relatively stable since they were first drawn in 1996, when voters opted to return to district elections after two decades of being governed by at-large supervisors. The Election Commission tapped SF State political science professor Richard DeLeon and his graduate student Lisel Blash to draw the lines. DeLeon’s map was designed to capture “more or less coherent political communities in the new lines, consistent with the other things regarding race and population size, and so on,” he said.

Once put in force for the 2000 election, the new boundaries had a massive impact on city politics. Without the need to run expensive, citywide campaigns, progressives like Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin took control of the Board of Supervisors, significantly curtailing Mayor Willie Brown’s power toward the end of his term.

Of course, district boundaries have not been without controversy over the years. The Fillmore and Japantown, straddling Districts 5, 2 and 6 were contested territory during the redistricting process that followed the 2000 census. “Back at that time, parts of the Plaza East public housing projects and Freedom West were cut out of that district,” Townsend said, referring to District 5. “And a lot of people felt that diluted Black voting strength.”

Getting district boundaries right is essential for giving voters faith in democracy, says Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a voting rights advocacy group. “When people see that political district boundary lines are being drawn to minimize the power of a particular group or to keep incumbents in power, I think it really has a deleterious effect on the local democracy.”

The incumbency question could be an awkward one for the redistricting task force: If the new district lines exclude the home address of the current supervisor, she or he would not be eligible to run for reelection in their current district. That briefly became an issue during the last redistricting cycle, when draft maps showed Supervisor David Chiu being cut off from his district.

For his part, Townsend, who was appointed to the task force by Mayor London Breed, says he doesn’t know exactly where any current supervisors live. His priority is “to see ethnic communities held together where they can have some effectiveness in the voting in their district,” adding that it’s still too early to tell what that will look like on the map. For now, he’s singularly focused on getting the public to participate in the redistricting process.

San Franciscans should “attend the meetings, get with their organizations, their groups, their churches, and even their friends, and start plotting out what you think your district ought to look like and start letting us know,” Townsend said. “This is going to be it for the next 10 years.”

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