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What Redwood City’s new district lines mean for upcoming elections and the future of the city’s electorate

New districts prioritize minority populations, cause some controversy over voter deferrals

What began as concern over the dilution of minority voters, which stemmed from the threat of a lawsuit that accused the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act, quickly paved the way for Redwood City to transition itself from an at-large electoral system to a district-based one. 

By 2019, the city had established new district boundaries, but those wouldn’t last long, as the results of the 2020 census were imminent and would once again affect border lines.

In the last few months, and with election season right around the corner, Redwood City officials studied district maps, presented some to council members and ultimately decided—over a split vote—which map would best represent the needs of their constituents. 

The chosen map will determine the future of the city’s seven voting districts for the next decade and impact not just who can run for office in each district, but also when and how voters are able to come together behind common interests.

Diversity, equal representation and a minimal change to district boundary lines were major topics of discussion among council members and residents during the final public hearings on the redistricting process. The council voted 5-2 to pass an ordinance adopting a map that some said would unfairly defer the votes of thousands of residents for two years, even while prioritizing voter populations among marginalized communities. 

This marks the completion of Redwood City’s first redistricting process since moving to by-district elections, and establishing initial district boundaries, in 2019. The original move from at-large elections was triggered by concern over the dilution of minority, primarily Latino voters, who at the time comprised 24% of the electorate but held only one seat on council.  

The new districts accommodate shifting demographics as a result of the recent 2020 Census. Since the original lines were drawn in 2019, Redwood City’s total citizen voting age population (CVAP) has grown by nearly 5%, and while Asian and Black voting populations have each decreased by half a percent, Latino voters have increased by 1%.

The new map will be used for the first time in the November election, when voters in districts 2, 5, and 6 will elect a council member for their respective district.

Understanding Redwood City’s new district lines

The new boundaries will move some residents into different districts and defer voting for constituents whose districts change, a topic of much deliberation among the public and council. And while some residents may be quick to point to inequities, city officials and others are just as quick to say that voter deferral is not the same as disenfranchisement. 

“There is no disenfranchisement happening at all,” said Rudy Espinoza Murray, Advisory Redistricting Committee (ARC) chair. “There are some people who will vote in two district elections. They voted in 2020, and now that they're in a new district, they will vote again. So, some people will have to exercise their vote more than once on the district elections because of how districts are drawn. That is a typical result of redistricting.”

As members of ARC, Espinoza Murray and seven others were tasked with reviewing publicly submitted maps and suggesting maps they thought best met the criteria for each district in Redwood City to City Council. 

Vote deferral is the “unavoidable result when a jurisdiction with staggered terms is redistricted,” according to the city. Though some amount of deferral is inevitable, most jurisdictions aim to minimize the number of residents switching districts. Map C3 will cause 2,396 deferrals, while map 107465 would have resulted in 792, according to the staff report.

During a public hearing last month, nine residents, several of which expressed concern about the voter deferrals, spoke out. One of those speakers included Kaia Eakin. 

“If you adopt map C3 tonight, I and hundreds of my neighbors will not have a vote in 2022,” Eakin said. “We’ll be without a vote for a six year period from 2018 to 2024.”

During the Feb. 28 hearing, resident Rona Gundrum cited the 3% of residents whose votes will be deferred and said she was “profoundly disappointed.” 

“As a voter, it’s a frustrating feeling,” Ian Bain, former Redwood City mayor, told the Pulse. “It feels, to some people, like not having a voice in city government.

“In the last election, my wife and I did not get to vote for city council. It’s the first time since I’ve lived here that I’ve not gotten to vote for anyone for city council because my district was not up,” he said. 

The two dissenting voices on the passage of the ordinance were former Mayor Diane Howard and Vice Mayor Diana Reddy, who echoed concerns that the new district map had a comparatively high number of voter deferrals.

Political scientist, UCLA professor and voting rights expert, Matt Barreto, confirmed that some amount of voter deferral is expected in redistricting. But, he added, “I do think that governing bodies should take care to make sure that they’re not systematically shifting boundaries around, so as a large percentage of voters are getting their election put off by another two years.”

The newly adopted map maintains Redwood City’s seven existing districts, according to the staff report. The plan divides 10 neighborhood associations and keeps seven intact. All of Redwood Shores will remain in one district with Farm Hill and Canyon in another; portions of Eagle Hill, Central and Roosevelt will be grouped together around Red Morton Park, while parts of Woodside Plaza will be combined with Palm. The map also expands the downtown area by shifting the District B boundary from Main St. to Maple St. 

New districts, new mayor

New boundaries will also shift the makeup of the city council, moving Reddy from district 6 to 7 and Howard from district 5 to 6. Because the three remaining at-large positions, including council seats for districts 2, 5 and 6, are up for election this November, Reddy will be unable to seek reelection. 

As vice mayor, and following the city’s council member rotation sequence, Reddy was in line to become Mayor in 2023. 

Per the city charter, which was updated in 2019 to adopt the rotation policy, mayors are selected based on seniority. Members in the first and second positions in the rotation are typically nominated for the roles and must be confirmed by a majority council vote. 

Following the current rotation schedule, Council member Smith is now first in line for the mayorship, with Council member Gee in line to become vice mayor.

Some members of the public worried about the impact this would have on their elected representatives. ARC’s Espinoza Murray, who said he understood their concerns, attributed it to voter loyalty. But he also reiterated that new representation is a normal part of redistricting and that incumbency is, by law, irrelevant and not considered in committee discussions. 

A brief history of redistricting

This months-long effort marks Redwood City’s first redistricting since the city moved to by-district elections three years ago.

Prior to 2020, the city used an at-large electoral system, in which all eligible residents cast their votes for each member of council, who would represent the entire electorate.  

That changed when, in August 2018, a letter sent by Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, of the law firm Shenkman & Hughes, alleged that the city’s then at-large elections system was “racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution.” 

Redwood City’s voting age population is just over 50,000, which is roughly 59% of the total population. Of those voters, nearly 25% are Latino, 13.5% are Asian and 2.5% are Black.

The letter accused the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) by diluting the voting power of the Latinx and Asian citizen voting age populations (CVAP). According to Shenkman, he was tipped off about the issue when he received a letter from a couple of Redwood City residents who were concerned that the existing at-large election system was violating the CVRA. At the time, Alicia Aguirre was the only Latinx member of the council in a city whose population was more than 36% Hispanic-identifying.

The CVRA, which was signed into state law in 2002, prohibited at-large elections in jurisdictions where that system could be shown to disenfranchise “protected classes” of minority voters. Statewide, only 28 cities used by-district elections before the CVRA; by the time of the letter in Redwood City, nearly 90 had made the switch, according to the League of California Cities.

“The CVRA essentially has that as its aim—of creating opportunities for communities of color, and historically excluded communities in particular, to elect candidates of their choice,” said Sara Sadhwani, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and one of 14 members of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission

Shenkman, for his part, wasn’t always on the redistricting beat. 

In 2011, he received a call from a political activist by the name of Darren Parker who wanted to sue the southern California city of Palmdale for violating the CVRA.

“I had no idea how an election system would affect people’s lives,” Shenkman said, reflecting on that first case. 

Palmdale, he soon learned, was extremely divided between the wealthier west side and the less wealthy, more Latino and African American east side.

“And for decades, the west side has dominated Palmdale city government,” he said.

Palmdale, which went to court over the matter, ultimately lost its case and was forced to pay Shenkman roughly $4.6 million in legal fees. In the years since, Shenkman believes the city has seen some positive changes, particularly for its minority residents.

“Once the city of Palmdale went to district elections for the first time in 2016, the first Latino Democrat in that city’s 50-plus year history was elected,” he said. “Almost immediately, all of the projects in East Palmdale that were slated to happen but never did, for years and years—all of those got done.”

For Shenkman, his decade-long campaign to bring cities into compliance with the CVRA is ultimately about fairness and equal representation for all residents. 

“It's an almost inevitable reaction of an elected official to to take care of the people who are going to reelect you,” he said, adding that a city’s election system makes a big difference in who can afford to run.

“Redwood City is not a small city,” Shenkman said. “And running a campaign in a city of nearly 90,000 people is not easy. It costs a significant amount of money.”

But dividing the city into districts, each with less than 10,000 voting age residents, makes what he called “retail politics”—the less costly canvassing, knocking on doors and other face-to-face efforts—into a viable campaign tactic.

Redwood City was the latest jurisdiction to face legal action from Shenkman who, in the last decade, has sent more than 100 letters to sue cities and school districts throughout California, the majority of which have been resolved without litigation. More than 50 cities have adopted districts as a result of his intervention, many paying thousands, if not millions, of dollars. 

Facing a lawsuit and legal fees if they didn’t comply with the demands, the Redwood City Council followed suit and decided unanimously to transition to a district-based electoral system.

“Every governmental defendant that has challenged the conversation to by-district elections under the CVRA has either lost in court or settled/agreed to change its election system and been forced to pay at least some portion of the plaintiff's attorneys' fees and costs,” the Redwood City Deputy and City Managers wrote in their report.

Under the new system, voting residents would no longer elect seven council members to represent the entire city. Instead, residents would be divided into districts and would cast a vote for the candidate living in and seeking to represent their region.

Under pressure to transition quickly, the city hired a demographer and hosted several study sessions. District maps were drafted and finalized in early 2019, with the city’s first by-district elections held in four of the seven districts in November 2020. Jeff Gee, Espinoza-Garnica, Smith and Aguirre were elected to districts 1, 3, 4 and 7, respectively. Because Howard, Reddy and now-Mayor Giselle Hale were not up for election until November 2022, they have remained at-large city representatives for the remaining three districts.

Legal pressure aside, the decision to move to by-district elections has not gone un-scrutinized. Bain, who was the mayor at the time, told the Pulse that he doesn’t think districts have had the intended effect.

“If we're sticking with district elections, which we have to do for the time being, every district would have a competitive race where there's a choice of candidates. That’s not how it’s played out so far,” he said, pointing to District 4 where Smith ran unopposed. “So far it hasn't encouraged more people to run for office.”

But Barreto adamantly disagrees. He said that the role of by-district elections in empowering minority candidates voters has been well-documented in the literature.

“In racial and ethnic diverse cities, at-large elections have historically been used to dilute and diminish minority representation,” he said. “And, in fact, it was one of the main reasons for instituting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Barreto cited a 2019 study by Loren Collingwood, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, that showed that at-large cities had worse minority representation throughout California. But among the 30 cities that converted to by-district elections, Collingwood found that minority representation grew significantly. The effects were almost immediate—and regardless of jurisdiction size. 

“That political science research is extremely clear. I would say it's not at all controversial.” Barreto said. “It just also makes mathematical sense that as you draw a district around a population and allow them to be a majority of the voters, they’re able to elect candidates of their choice.”

Of course, a district with a Latino citizen voting age population of 50% isn’t necessarily going to see all those who are eligible turning out to vote on election day. Sadhwani said that’s something diverse communities throughout California will continue to grapple with. 

“For for communities of color that have faced discrimination at the ballot box, I think that that becomes internalized in many ways,” said Sadhwani. “If you feel like your vote doesn't count, if you feel like your vote is not decisive in the outcome of an election, then you may not have developed a pattern or a history of participation.”

Since moving to by-district elections, Redwood City has elected two more council members of color—Smith, who is Black, and Espinoza-Garnica, who is Latinx. 

Collingwood said that Redwood City’s shift in demographics is on par with what his study saw in other comparable cities, which he attributes primarily to trends in the candidates supported by minority voters, he said.

“There often is racially polarized voting, which is to say that Latinos vote for a certain set of candidates and Asians vote for different set of candidates,” Collingwood said. “If candidates from those communities in particular play on issues that are specific to those communities, you need that near majority vote for minority voters in order to win.”

But it’s not just the immediate change in political representation that political scientists like Barreto and Collingwood look for. Often the biggest impacts are seen years down the line—like the creation of a new Hispanic community center or the passage of more fair housing policies.

As Barreto said: “Successfully getting new voices onto the city council…or school board or county commission…leads to more equitable policy decisions by the governing body.”

What it takes to make a map

Redwood City’s first official redistricting process began with an initial public hearing in June 2021.

Though 2020 census data wasn’t made available until the fall, the city formed the Advisory Redistricting Committee (ARC) to lead public engagement and produce several draft maps for consideration. In an application and interview process conducted by the Redwood City Council, 11 committee members were chosen—one from each district and four at-large—to represent the voters in redistricting discussions.

Map drafting and discussions began in earnest when census data became available. Since the last census in 2010, Redwood City’s Hispanic population has grown by roughly 1%, while the number of residents who identify as “Asian alone” has grown by 66.7%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, the city’s population is up almost 10% since 2010.

Over the course of several weeks, ARC collected community of interest (COI) testimony, draft maps and public input to inform their recommendations. Maps were drafted by the outside demography consultant Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners.

Public feedback was an important part of the process, according to ARC’s Espinoza Murray, who said residents helped bring attention to local concerns and features, like which streets formed natural boundaries between neighborhoods. The committee worked with a private consultant to draw detailed maps, amending based on community input. Espinoza Murray said he read every public comment and went through every publicly submitted map.

“Initially, I had a slight preference,” Espinoza Murray said of the final draft maps. “And then I changed after hearing the public comment. That's the important thing about listening, right? You don't know everything, but you get insights from the people.”

In their discussions, the committee was bound by several rank criteria, as outlined in the 2019 Fair Maps Act, to prevent gerrymandering. In addition to creating districts that have relatively equal population size, are compact and contiguous and respect natural and artificial boundaries, ARC prioritized maintaining communities of interest. Also known as interest-based communities, these groups include people with a common interest, which can range anywhere from communal parks to income levels to shared languages.

The committee also had to comply with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by preventing the dilution of minority voters. While certain racial and “language” groups are protected by the VRA, including Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, race cannot be used as the primary factor for district lines. Maintaining the city’s two current majority-minority districts and an “Asian influence” district were also priorities for the committee. In proposed districts C and F the voting age population is more than 50% Latinx, while more than 37% of voting age residents in proposed district A are Asian. 

Certain subjects are off limits when it comes to redistricting conversations. Committee members are not, for example, allowed to promote partisan interests or consider incumbency. California state law is clear on this matter, stating: “Communities of interest shall not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.” 

In fact, the council members’ street addresses are kept secret in order to prevent any discussion of how new district lines would affect the existing council member seats, Espinoza Murray said.

After several meetings, the committee decided in a unanimous vote to advance two options, maps B and C2, which they presented to the council in December. Two more public hearings were held in January and February, during which additional revised ARC and publicly submitted maps were considered. Ultimately the council voted to advance map C3, which amended a previous map to include all mobile home parks along East Bayshore Road in a single district. 

While Espinoza Murray described the consultant-made maps as generally more precise and higher quality, he still saw much use for those created by Redwood City residents.

“There are ideas that we can take from publicly submitted maps,” he said, adding that often residents’ lived experience can provide useful context for outside demographers. “I think that that’s where the public publicly submitted maps add value.”

What happens next?

Currently, city staff and the demographer are working on the paperwork to submit to the San Mateo County Elections Office and finalize the new district boundaries.

Meanwhile, the city has begun a “robust outreach campaign” to educate the public about their new districts and what the changes mean for their voting schedule, according to Communications Manager Jennifer Yamaguma.

In addition to the usual outreach through social media, newsletters and blog posts, the city will also be sending out a mailer to all residents, hosting pop-up informational events (including a table at the Farmers Market), publishing multilingual ads in local newspapers, working with Neighborhood Associations and other local partners and making city staff available to answer questions or schedule individual meetings.

The city also published an interactive map to allow residents to explore the new boundaries and easily compare them with former district divisions.

The new district boundaries, as defined in the approved map, will go into effect 30 days after being adopted—or Wednesday, March 30. City staff are now responsible for filing all paperwork with the San Mateo County Elections by the state-mandated deadline of April 17 to ensure that redistricting is complete in time for the November 2022 election.

The redistricting process is conducted every ten years to adjust maps based on population shifts from the latest census and rebalance district representation among the city’s roughly 85,000 residents.

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