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Kern County starts process of redrawing political lines despite missing census data

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The Kern County Board of Supervisors is in session in this file photo. The supervisors are David Couch, Leticia Perez, Phillip Peters, Zack Scrivner and Mike Maggard.

By the time Californians head to the polls next year, the political boundaries will have shifted in ways that could have significant impacts on election outcomes.

The state has begun its redistricting process, a 10-year occurrence that uses U.S. Census data to redraw political maps. The county of Kern held its first redistricting workshop Monday to receive input from the community on how the new maps should be drawn.

“Every comment, every piece of feedback, every map that somebody draws, or neighborhood that is identified as a community of interest will all be given equal consideration when (supervisors) make a final decision,” said Jason Wiebe, County Administrative Office manager.

But this year, redistricting officials will face an unusual challenge. The coronavirus pandemic has delayed the release of census data, meaning the drawing of official maps has been stalled. A process that can take nine months to accomplish needs to be crunched into two.

“We’ve got to wait on census data for our sprint to happen,” said Fredy Ceja, communications director for the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a 14-member board that oversees redistricting for state and federal offices. “There’s not too much we can do in terms of an official map for consideration because we don’t have census data, but what we can do is lay a lot of the groundwork for understanding the public’s (sentiment).”

This year, an added emphasis has been placed on maintaining “communities of interest.” The Redistricting Commission and the county hope citizens identify such communities so they can be maintained when the maps are drawn.

“We need to hear from communities about their communities of interest,” Ceja said. “When commissioners start drawing those districts they will try their best to keep those communities together.”

By keeping neighborhoods within the same district, officials hope to maintain those areas’ political power. Gerrymandering can occur when a community is split into multiple districts, diluting the political power of the residents of that community.

Kern County residents should be familiar with improper political boundaries. In 2018, a U.S. District Court judge ruled the county’s supervisorial district boundaries violated the Voting Rights Act by suppressing the Latino vote. The Board of Supervisors was forced to redistrict two years early to create a second Latino-majority district.

Ironically, the work done in 2018 could help supervisors draw new maps in the accelerated pace of this year’s redistricting.

“I think we can expect that obviously ours haven’t changed as much in the last few years as some counties would have over the last 10 years, so in some respects we do have a head start,” Wiebe said. “But again, we’re going to take that data and census information when we get it and look at it with fresh eyes and not assume that it’s going to be that similar to what was done a few years ago.”

Monday’s virtual meeting was sparsely attended, and few individuals made public comments. The county will hold several meetings over the next several months to receive feedback. A Spanish language meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, available online at bit.ly/3i1eEVM.

A hybrid virtual and in-person public meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. July 31 at the Kern County Board Chambers located at 1115 Truxtun Ave. and online at bit.ly/3i1eEVM.

The state redistricting commission is also in the process of conducting town halls for its own redistricting process. The commission will soon vote on whether to hold those town halls in-person or all virtual. The meeting for the region which contains Kern County is scheduled for Aug. 4.

The county expects to receive census data by the end of September and complete its maps by Dec. 15. The state redistricting commission hopes to finish its own maps by Jan. 14.

More information can be found at wedrawthelinesca.org.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.