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SLO County faces accelerated and daunting redistricting task amid census delays, 2022 election changes 

Delays in the 2020 census are spilling into the nationwide redistricting process, which in turn is creating a time crunch for the 2022 elections.

The U.S.'s once-a-decade population survey, typically released to the states sometime between March and May the year after it's conducted, isn't expected to be ready this year until October, thanks to COVID-19 and other complications.

That roughly six-month delay leaves states and localities with much less time to redraw their electoral district boundaries—an already contentious process wrapped in political interests and implications. With a June 2022 primary election around the corner, simply extending the redistricting timeline is problematic, as it could postpone the election.

"Pushing back an election is a really big deal. ... It's really tough," said Neal Fornaciari, chair of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, during an April 29 webinar hosted by the San Luis Obispo County League of Women Voters.

SLO County officials told New Times that the Central Coast is not spared in this redistricting crunch, with some describing the process ahead as nightmarish. Further complicating it will be the number of local cities, school districts, and special districts transitioning from at-large elections to by-district elections—splitting communities, and even neighborhoods, into more slices.

The resulting jigsaw puzzle will make the 2022 elections incredibly complex, SLO County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said.

"It's going to be extremely challenging," Gong said. "It creates a lot more complication and confusion for the voters. I get it, but that's what's going to be downstream."

Redistricting is the initial task, where electoral district boundaries are redrawn in response to shifts in population according to the census. The condensed timeline for redistricting—late October to mid-December, per current estimates—means citizens will have weeks instead of months to weigh in. Redistricting decision makers will face the same time pressure.

The unusual circumstances are partly why Julie Rodewald, a former SLO County clerk-recorder and a board member with the SLO County League of Women Voters, hosted a Q-and-A with Fornaciari on April 29. Rodewald's spearheading a League campaign to get the word out about what lies ahead.

"What we're trying to do is mostly educate people on how to get involved in the process," Rodewald said. "There are very specific requirements for public outreach [on redistricting], but when you condense those into a two-month period instead of a six-month period, it really complicates the whole thing."

At the state level, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission—a bipartisan committee created by voters in 2008 to take redistricting authority away from politicians—will be tasked with drawing the lines for the congressional and state office districts. For the first time ever, the commission will have fewer congressional districts to map. Preliminary census data revealed that California will lose a seat in the House of Representatives for this cycle.

"Losing one congressional seat and having to start all over, that further complicates it for them," Rodewald said.

Following 2011 redistricting, SLO County became part of a simpler representational map where it voted for one Congress member, one state senator, and one state Assembly member. That structure is one important aspect of what's at stake in the commission's 2021 deliberations, Rodewald said.

On a more local level, SLO County will also be redrawing its supervisorial districts, as will the cities, school boards, and special districts that have by-district elections. Within these jurisdictions, elected officials will determine their district boundaries—not independent commissions.

During a recent discussion on redistricting, the politically divided SLO County Board of Supervisors decided against assembling a citizens' advisory committee for the project. Instead, it delegated redistricting to county staff and a consultant (the board will still get the final vote on the district map).

Given the lack of formal citizen oversight at many of these local agencies, on top of the accelerated timeline to complete redistricting, Rodewald said it's critical for the public to be involved and engaged so that officials are held accountable in the process.

"That's why it's so important to have it done in the sunshine," Rodewald said. "It's one of the reasons we really applaud the state, the voter initiative, to allow an independent, more bipartisan effort to redraw those lines, so it's not the party in power."

In interviews with three SLO County supervisors about redistricting, all three expressed some underlying preferences for a future map, while adding that any discussion was premature without the updated census data.

Fifth District Supervisor Debbie Arnold said she wanted to revisit Cal Poly's inclusion in her mostly north-of-the-Cuesta Grade district.

"You take a community out of where it lives and attach it to where there's not a lot of connection," Arnold said.

Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton questioned the city of SLO getting split among four supervisorial districts. She said the map was drawn "squirrely" in 2011 to advantage Democrats.

"Logically, that's not going to happen again," Compton said.

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, in contrast, spoke about wanting to make incremental changes to the map rather than major ones. He warned that the three-member conservative board majority could be angling for partisan changes.

"The whole political climate has changed. It's more fraught at this point," Gibson said.

All three said they would follow redistricting laws and guidelines during the process. Those rules require districts to hold equal populations, be drawn to not split up cities and "communities of interest" to the extent possible, to not favor a particular candidate or political party, and to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

County officials said they'll be launching a redistricting website in May or June that will allow the public to tinker with mapping. An initial public hearing is slated for the summer to solicit input. But without any census data, community members and supervisors will be limited in their discussion.

"It's going to be tough without the new data. It's a shot in the dark," SLO County Assistant Administrative Officer Guy Savage said.

When the census arrives in October, the county will hold another public hearing before making final decisions in December.

While there's been some state-level discussion about delaying the June 7, 2022, primary election to allow more time for redistricting, SLO County Clerk-Recorder Gong said he doesn't sense there's much of an appetite for that.

Gong is staying busy preparing for 2022 elections that will include 13 or 14 more local governments splitting into by-district elections—creating potentially hundreds of new types of ballots. The dual effect of that and the delayed census is setting up an unprecedented challenge, Gong said.

"It's much, much more complicated," he said. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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