Data needed for redistricting process
March 30, 2010 9:19 p.m.
Though each questionnaire collected contains just 10 questions, the results of this year’s census could have enormous political and economic ramifications for California, particularly due to changes caused by Proposition 11.
The results of each census dictate where the lines for congressional, state legislature and state Senate districts are drawn.
This process of redistricting groups voters together based on geographic area to decide who represents them in local and state government. These invisible boundaries change each decade to reflect population trends found in the census.
While deciding district lines was once reserved for elected politicians, this act will now fall on a commission of 14 California citizens, as dictated by Proposition 11, a state initiative passed in the 2008 general election.
Redistricting has had a legacy of diluting the power of minority populations’ votes by lumping together groups of people from disparate areas that do not share common interests and goals, said Paul Ong, a professor in the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
“There were a number of (legal) fights about certain states (and) local governments using redistricting to disenfranchise minority voters,” he said.
This practice, known as gerrymandering, has been a feature of American politics since colonial times.
But there are ways for minority populations to establish district lines that retain their political power, said Bruce Cain, executive director of the UC Washington Center and professor of political science at UC Berkeley.
Cain drew an example from the LGBT community’s fight to get district lines created around their communities, pointing to their greater rate of political engagement and attendance of district hearings.
“If lines are drawn in a way that divides the gay community, they’re very quick to put out remedies,” Cain said.
Ong and Cain both made several predictions about the results of this year’s census.
The percentages of Latino- and Asian-American California residents should increase substantially, Ong said, adding that the African-American community will likely continue its trend of declining numbers statewide.
Cain agreed, adding that the recent trend toward urban flight into suburbs and outer-lying areas should continue, particularly in Los Angeles.
“Preliminary estimates … show that Los Angeles and other urban areas are going to have underpopulated seats,” Cain said. “As a consequence, a whole bunch of districts in L.A. are going to be (less) populated and needing to expand.”
He also said that because of recent trends in migration from coastal cities to further east, the eastern part of California will likely show huge increases in population and concurrent rises in political representation.
Though these demographic shifts can be readily observed, the changes to the redistricting process spurred on by the passage of Proposition 11 remain to be seen.
Cain said the political role of this commission remains difficult to foresee because it is so new.
But Ong said he believes that the independent commission created by Proposition 11 will help to maintain the oft-disputed fairness of district lines.
“In the past, the process has been about protecting incumbents,” Ong said. “That’s no longer a driving force with this commission.”
Another role of the data collected by each decade’s census is to ascertain the distribution of federal funding to individual states.
The way this money is divided is based on simple formulas highly dependent on state and local population, said David Card, professor of economics at UC Berkeley.
These formulas allocate the funding for a wide variety of government programs, including health care centers, senior care services and transportation services, said Lynne Choy Uyeda, spokesperson and media specialist for the 2010 Census, L.A. region.
Uyeda went on to list various questions answered by census data that ranged from whether UCLA would build a new off-ramp to where emergency response teams go first when natural disaster strikes.
Because the population of most states are expanding at a steady clip, many funding decisions are based on the state’s rate of growth, which might hurt California.
“California doesn’t grow that quickly because we’re a very condensed state, we’re very full,” Card said, adding that the finite space in coastal places means California cities have little room to expand.
Despite the significance that the census figures hold, scholars said the methods of the Census Bureau work well to accurately capture true population trends, though limitations remain.
“Are we going to get a perfect count? Far from it,” Ong said. “Is there a way to improve what they’re doing? Yes, but it’s very difficult given the resource constraints.”
Still, he stressed that there may be communities that feel underrepresented in this year’s census.
“I would assume there are groups that are going to be unhappy with it,” Ong said. “You’re going to have some winners and you’re going to have some losers.”