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Localities must redistrict, too. Santa Barbara County's plan is different this year


Across the country, map drawers are getting busy sketching out new voting districts using the numbers from the 2020 census. But it's not just the congressional districts that we hear so much about that are getting an update. Most school districts, cities and counties are also required to redistrict every 10 years. And in California, Santa Barbara County is going about things a little differently this year. Here's Benjamin Purper from member station KCBX.

BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: Santa Barbara County is home to nearly half a million people and has been called a land of extremes. In the southern coastal area, you've got Montecito. That's where Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of the British royal family recently moved. And then you've got the northern part of the county, where many agricultural workers of the region live. And for years, lower-income Latino residents in the north have been drawn into long-shaped voting districts with much wealthier and whiter residents in the south, who often have very different political needs and wants. But this year, things might be different.

MEGAN TURLEY: I mean, this is the first time that we've had an independent commission for redistricting in Santa Barbara County.

PURPER: That's Megan Turley. She, along with 10 other Santa Barbara County residents, are now in charge of drawing voting lines this year. Before, it was the county-elected officials who would get together and come up with their own districts themselves. Turley says the new commission grants them independence

TURLEY: Without interference from special interests or politicians or the county supervisors. We're an independent commission, so that's really, really important.

PURPER: This kind of independent organization for redistricting has become more and more popular at the state level. But now some smaller governments, especially in California, are giving it a go. Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, says while there's not a lot of evidence yet, the states that have implemented independent commissions are less gerrymandered and some of the most, quote, "electorally responsive in the country," meaning...

MICHAEL LI: As Democrats win more votes, they win more seats. And as Republicans win more votes, they win more seats. And most people will tell you that that's what democracy should look like.

PURPER: But Li says independent commissions aren't a cure-all for voting rights and fair representation.

LI: It is not a solution for everything that people see or have problems with in our politics. Sometimes the difference is whether you get an A-plus or whether you just move from an F to, like, a B-minus. But even moving from an F a B-minus is a really big change and will result in better representation.

PURPER: One way the local commission is trying to raise their grade is through public input. They're holding community meetings. And...

LUCAS ZUCKER: All right. So this is the county's map drawing tool. It's...

PURPER: They've got an online tool which lets anyone draw maps of districts as a form of public testimony. Lucas Zucker is with CAUSE, a local advocacy group in Santa Barbara County. He shows me how it works.

ZUCKER: And let's zoom in here.

PURPER: Zucker says he hopes the independent commission will group together some of the rural agricultural areas in the North County to form one comprehensive district. He says that would give residents unified voting power and a county representative interested in their specific needs. And, in fact, if you take a drive through that part of the county, it's hard to make sense of why they would be divided in the first place.

Fences, crops and trucks. That's basically what I'm seeing here on the 166, which connects the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe, which are these heavily Hispanic and heavily farmworker communities, but are separated, despite their similarities, by a county district line. So I'm actually heading from one district, District 3, to District 5. And I'm crossing that line right about now. And now I'm in a different district.

Lucas Zucker says those district lines shouldn't exist because people in these two districts share common interests like race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. That's why, he says, he'd like to see the commission group together Guadalupe and parts of Santa Maria.

ZUCKER: That are all kind of predominantly immigrant, farmworker neighborhoods so that there's a district that really represents that voice and isn't drowned out by wealthier communities, whiter communities, communities who have greater access to the political process.

PURPER: The commission still has a few months to collect public input and draw final maps. And Zucker hopes the result will be five districts that fairly represent the people from the South and the North County. He says he's optimistic.

ZUCKER: We really saw some, you know, real improvements for voting rights and representation from the state redistricting commission. And we're hopeful that this local one will do the same and particularly result in more representation for the working-class immigrant, agricultural communities of North County.

PURPER: Local officials around the country will also be watching to see how it goes. If new voting districts survive legal challenges, more small governments may establish independent commissions for the next round of redistricting in 2031.

For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper in Santa Barbara County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Purper
Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.