San Mateo County asks citizens to redraw its district lines

After an embarrassing lawsuit forced San Mateo County to acknowledge that its supervisorial district boundaries might dilute the voting power of Asians and Latinos, officials redoubled their efforts to create a more equitable system. They decided to tackle the problem right at the root, by reconsidering the current district lines and inviting citizens to redraw them.

And they did that in an unusually democratic manner, said Douglas Johnson, the project's lead demographer. Whereas most cities or counties just assign an elected body to tweak the district lines and foist them on the public, San Mateo County put together a committee of elected officials and appointed citizens, then asked them to discuss the issue.

Their discussion has slogged along since June with meetings held across the county — the next one happens Thursday in East Palo Alto.

In the meantime, San Mateo County officials have invited members of the public to submit their own proposed district maps, using software provided on an easy-to-use redistricting website. Thus far, three people have submitted maps, along with one submission from a loose collective that calls itself the Community Unity Group.

Many of the new proposed maps tried to lump citizens from a particular voter category — Latino, low-income, reliant on public transit, non-English-speaking — into a viable voting bloc. A few people wanted to conjoin the neighborhoods east of the freeway, such as East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, while others wanted to group all of South San Francisco together. University of Washington associate professor Matt Barreto, who provided an expert declaration in the 2011 lawsuit, said the current line through Daly City prevents District 5 from being an Asian bloc.

But moving it over would create a “ripple effect,” Johnson said, because it would also affect District 3. The populations of each district have to be commensurate in the end, he explained, but it's never quite as easy as taking a chunk from one and swapping it into another.

“When you put Pacifica into District 5, then District 3 is short,” Johnson said. “And it spreads across the map.”

Because of such logistical complications, some communities just won't ever get their due. Residents on the coast have long lobbied for their own district, but there simply aren't enough of them. Even if you counted everyone from Pacifica down to Pescadero, you'd still be about 70,000 people short, Johnson pointed out.

Incorporating everyone's input may be challenging, Johnson conceded, especially given that most submitters have strong opinions behind their work. For instance, the Community Unity Group attached a six-page letter that served as a raison d'etre, of sorts.

But Johnson says he's also impressed with the county's efforts to engage its voters, even if it makes the process a little slower. Things certainly move fast in a back room with five people, but there's something to be said for transparency.

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