The County of Kern will run four elections in 2018. Three of them are already active. But the lines for the county’s five supervisorial districts could be thrown into turmoil within the next couple months.
And county leaders face a ton of uncertainty about what that will mean for the four elections that are on the plate.
This week U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd heard the final arguments on the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s lawsuit against the county after an 11-day trial.
It’s uncertain how long Drozd will take to review the case and render a decision.
But if MALDEF wins the case he could order Kern County to immediately re-draw the current boundaries of the five supervisorial districts which, the group claims, violate the Voting Rights Act.
Kern’s current boundaries deny Latinos a second Latino-majority district, which MALDEF claims should have been drawn in 2011 to satisfy the Voting Rights Act.
“MALDEF presented authoritative and comprehensive testimony from expert witnesses who indisputably established the unlawful aspects of the supervisorial elections, and from Latino voters in Kern County who have had no choice but to vote in elections that are illegal under the Voting Rights Act. It is our hope that this lawsuit will vindicate the claims of Latino voters and will result in a meaningful opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process in Kern County,” wrote MALDEF National Senior Counsel Denise M. Hulett in a Friday statement.
But if the judge determines MALDEF is right, county officials say they will be in a logistical mess.
Kern County Deputy Registrar of Voters Karen Rhea testified in the trial.
“We have no position on the lines,” she said.
But if the lines change in 2018 she’ll be tasked with the complicated, detailed task of reworking the massive databases and voting systems that track where voters live, where they vote and who they can vote for.
Rhea said she will run elections in March and April. She’s already registering candidates for that – as well as for the June primary election.
In just a couple weeks she will begin issuing ballots to military voters for the first election, a tax measure in Rosamond.
Under the law, she said, “If I have voters moved from a precinct when I have issued them a ballot then that vote is invalidated.”
Political districts are made up of dozens, even hundreds of small geographic blocks called precincts.
When lines are moved they move precincts.
Moving them would be the job of the Kern County Board of Supervisors with the help of the Kern County Administrative Office.
The last time a formal redistricting happened, in 2011, it took six months of data work, public meetings and debate. This process, to be done under court order, would need to meet whatever timeline the court sets.
And the changes contemplated by MALDEF would not be small.
To meet the standards it’s likely that eastern Kern County, which is currently represented by Supervisors Zack Scrivner and Mick Gleason, would need to be moved into a single district.
Sections of heavily Latino northwest Kern County currently in Gleason’s District 1 as well as chunks of east Bakersfield and Arvin or Lamont – in Latina Supervisor Leticia Perez’s District 5 – would need to be connected to a newly shaped Latino district.
Gleason said he’s not opposed to the idea of making districts more representative of the people who live in the county.
“I’m open minded,” he said. “If we can do something to design a system for better representation for the people of Kern County,” that’s great.
But he worries that the occasional conflicting interests of the Navy and Air Force bases in eastern Kern County would could a problem for a supervisors hoping represent them.
“The Air Force and the Navy are two separate entities,” he said. “Every once in a while it would be a mine field for one person to represent Kern County.”
Rhea said there is a ton of uncertainty about what the process of redistricting in the middle of an election would involve.
Where the lines are, for instance, would determine whether two sitting supervisors would be thrown into the same political district.
One of the conceptual MALDEF maps did that to Gleason and Scrivner, who is up for re-election this year.
Who would run for office? Would one of the pair be removed from office?
Rhea said there are complicated ways, under the law, that those questions are answered.
“It calls into question who is the incumbent,” she said. “If you end up with two supervisors in the same district it comes down to who has the most territory.”
County officials would have to dig deep into those rules to find out how the two leaders would be impacted if the lines change that dramatically.
And Rhea said the simple workload of moving the lines would be massive – in the middle of the serious work of running elections.
“It can take anywhere from one to four hours to do one precinct,” she said.
There were more than 600 precincts in the last election, Rhea said.
So could it be done?
“If I’m ordered to do it we will do our best to comply but I have real concerns that it would compromise the integrity of these elections, all three elections,” Rhea said.