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Study: In a first, California poised to lose House seats

Southern California could lose two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and a few state legislative seats when voting districts are redrawn next year, according to a new analysis by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

With population growing slower in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County than in other parts of the state, both areas are flagged by the institute as communities that might lose representation. The region’s House seats could shift out of state to, say, a fast-growing part of Arizona, while our state representation would be picked up by fast growing Northern California.

The loss of local seats also could trigger a political blood bath if the current number of incumbents wind up competing for fewer, newly drawn districts, according to Douglas Johnson, a research affiliate with the Rose Institute.

One wildcard is participation in the 2020 Census. If more local residents answer the census — something that’s complicated right now because of the coronavirus epidemic and fear of the Trump administration within immigrant communities — the region could save at least one House seat.

But any loss in the House could drain the state’s power in Washington, D.C., while fewer state seats would reduce Southern California’s clout in Sacramento.

“Even if California loses just one seat, it’s going to be a shock to the system,” said Justin Levitt, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach who worked on the Rose Institute analysis.

Legislative seats are redrawn in every state once a decade, after census data is compiled. To date, California has not lost a congressional district in its 170-year history, though the state hasn’t added to its current 53-seat delegation in nearly 20 years. A 54th seat was widely expected for California following the 2010 census, but a long-term drop in immigration and the rising cost of living helped keep the state’s population — and its House delegation — flat.

In recent years, growth has stalled in communities like suburban Los Angeles County and Orange County, where home prices and rents have grown faster than wages, forcing people to move away or settle elsewhere.

That’s why Johnson said the 27th District in the San Gabriel Valley and perhaps the 49th District, which straddles south Orange County and north San Diego County, are potentially ripe to be eliminated and have their residents redistributed among neighboring districts. Another area that could lose a seat is the Central Valley, Johnson and Levitt said — or really almost anywhere else in California outside the Bay Area, which has seen the most growth over the past decade.

If districts were drawn based on population estimates, the data firm ESRI shows California would hold on to a second congressional district by tiny numbers; just 1,324 people over Arizona and 3,248 people over Minnesota.

But census counts never match population estimates, with just 68.2% of California’s projected residents participating in the 2010 census. And despite California dedicating $187 million to a campaign to encourage census participation this year, experts fear response could be even lower this cycle, since the coronavirus pandemic has forced census workers to pivot to phone and online outreach.

So far, 63.1% of Californians have responded to the census.

The importance of the census isn’t lost on Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat who represents the flagged 49th District.

“Although COVID-19 has made some types of outreach more difficult, he has been promoting participation through social media,” said Parke Skelton, a consultant for Levin’s campaign. “On July 18 he will be participating in a Census Car Caravan to encourage involvement in low response rate neighborhoods in Oceanside.”

If California does lose one or two congressional seats to another state, Johnson noted it would mean fewer votes in the Electoral College. It also could mean less influence when it comes to electing representatives who compete over commissions and debate where the federal government should spend on everything from transportation projects and military bases to judges and education. And since Washington, D.C. tends to have an anti-California bias, Johnson said “We need every vote we can get.”

Even if Southern California doesn’t lose a district, experts believe the region will see major changes to district boundaries next year. But Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento-based data consultant who heads up the firm Redistricting Partners, said so many factors are still unknown that, for now, it’s tough to make predictions about changes to specific districts.

While Texas, for example, is poised to gain three districts based on projected population growth, Mitchell noted that the Lone Star state’s census participation is lagging even behind California. If the response rate stays low, he said, Texas might gain just two seats and California might lose just one. And, within California, the census response rate in Los Angeles County is lower than in Orange County, meaning the Los Angeles region could lose some political power to O.C.

If local districts do dissolve or change significantly, experts believe the political battles that follow could be messier than in past cycles.

When districts were redrawn following the 2010 census, Mitchell said, as many as a dozen House members were ready to retire, while some 25 state Assembly members and 10 state senators were termed out. That eased the process of shifting power as districts were reconfigured based on new population information.

This time around, Mitchell said, only a few California congress members are nearing retirement and almost no local state legislators are terming out.

“There could be some fireworks,” Mitchell said.

Another complication is that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing back several key redistricting deadlines. Mitchell said that could translate into California shifting its 2022 primary date back to its traditional slot in June, following a March primary date in this year’s election cycle.

The U.S. Census Bureau delayed its deadline for collecting responses from July 31 to Oct. 31. And the bureau has asked congress to move the cutoff for getting final counts to states from the end of March to the end of July 2021.

That’s a problem for the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is required to complete new maps by Aug. 15, 2021. If current deadlines hold, the commission would be tasked with processing the data, collecting public input and drawing new maps for 177 voting districts in just two weeks.

Last month, the state asked the California Supreme Court to delay the deadline to redraw the maps, Johnson said, but they haven’t yet received a response.

California could also ask voters to change the date through a ballot measure, or the state could ask congress to prioritize getting counts to California. But if the state can’t make one of those changes happen and hit its redistricting deadline, the courts would get to redraw California’s district maps for the first time in 30 years.

Source: Orange County Register

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