By: Elizabeth Profaci

After California passed the Voters FIRST Act (“the Act”) in 2008, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (“the Commission”) has drawn the state’s legislative and congressional districts. Among other provisions pertaining to the work of the Commission, the Act provides deadlines for the release of draft maps for public comment, approval, and certification the Commission must follow. The Act requires the Commission to release at least one set of draft maps by July 1 of the year following the census and the California Constitution requires that final maps must be approved and certified to the Secretary of State by August 15 of that same year.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays with the release of census data, which makes complying with these statutory and constitutional deadlines impossible. Recognizing this difficulty, the Legislature of the State of California filed an emergency petition requesting a writ of mandate to adjust the deadlines. In Legislature v. Padilla, the California Supreme Court granted the Legislature’s motion and adjusted the deadlines to require the Commission to release the first map drafts for public comment by November 1, 2021 and to approve and certify the final maps by December 15, 2021. Additionally, the court concluded that “relevant state deadlines should be shifted accordingly” in the event of “further federal delay.” In light of the court’s holding, the Legislature adopted SB 594 in September 2021, which would codify the holding in Padilla.

As a result of the court’s holding and SB 594, the Commission has tentatively adjusted its timeline. On its website, the Commission notes that the “dates will be updated “once the census data are received and the Commission adopts the final schedule.” Right now, the final district maps are set to be adopted sometime between December 1, 2021 and February 28, 2022.

This blog post is the first in a two-part series discussing the effects of the deadline changes in the California redistricting process. Part I will address potential impact on the June 7, 2022 election as a result of the deadline change. Part II will address the impact on public participation.

Since May 2021, many of the comments received by the Commission have focused on the changes to the deadlines. A subset of these comments are from local registrars and county officials expressing concern about the limited timeframe these local officials will have to prepare. The changes in the deadlines—as well as the possibility that the deadlines will continue to change—have significantly reduced the amount of time that local officials have to prepare for the upcoming election in California. As Table 1 below demonstrates, local officials have anywhere from 121 to 151 fewer days to perform their administrative duties for the upcoming election than they did in 2011-2012.

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Source: Letter from Tony Bernhard to California Citizens Redistricting Commission, Public Comment for May 24-24 Commission Meeting (Item 9a) (May 20, 2021).

Before the June 7, 2022 election, local officials must implement the redistricting maps; a task that they usually have four months to complete. This requires local officials to re-precinct their districts. This requires officials to review the new district’s boundaries and precincts, and then determine how to modify existing precincts or if a new precinct needs to be created. he “re-precincting” process requires local officials “to review existing, modified, and newly created precincts to ensure (1) no precinct exceeds 1,000 active registered voters; (2) precinct lines trace the street center line, parcel, or census block; (3) boundaries are contiguous; and (4) precincts are not fragmented and consolidated wherever possible.”  The re-precincting process is conservatively estimated to take five weeks.

Then, local officials must upload the new precincts to VoteCal, the state voter registration database, and synchronize data with each county. While this synchronization process is estimated to take about five weeks, the Los Angeles County Registrar has highlighted the fact that this process will likely require additional time because it is the “first redistricting cycle on the statewide system.”

Delays to the re-precincting process will impact other aspects of the election as well. For example, candidates collecting signatures may be unable to obtain the requisite number of signatures in their district because it may be unclear which voters are within the new district’s boundary. The Napa County Registrar of Voters has expressed concern that moving the deadline “will seriously jeopardize local elections officials ability to update election management systems to allow candidates to file nomination papers by March 11, 2022 for the June 2022 election.”

Local officials’ other obligations will also likely be affected by the change in redistricting deadlines. They are required to provide voters with language services, sample ballots, and vote-by-mail ballots. The Los Angeles County Registrar has said “compliance with these requirements also depends on timely completion of the re-precincting process.”

It is clear that the deadlines for the Commission to approve and certify the maps will affect local election officials in many ways. But there are important considerations, other than only re-precincting, that must be accounted for. In particular, the ability of the public to comment on the maps released by the Commission is an integral part of the redistricting process. This topic will be explored further in Part II.

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