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Community learns election-district mapping in workshop by city, demographer

on November 19, 2019

Richmond’s city clerk and a demographics consultant hosted a second workshop at the City Council chamber on Monday to guide community members through the process of drawing up districting maps for Richmond, which the City Council will consider during the city’s expected transition from at-large to district-based council elections in January 2020.

While the public is invited to participate, the deadline for submitting district maps is imminent: paper map proposals are due at the City Clerk’s office by Thursday, November 21, at 5 p.m., and proposals saved as electronic files are due by midnight on that date.

Richmond is among the many California cities that have received letters from attorneys demanding that they adopt district elections, lest they face lawsuits under the state’s Voting Rights Act. These attorneys argue that at-large election systems like Richmond’s put ethnic minority voters at a disadvantage, which would be a violation of state and federal law.

Cities that chose to go to court paid dearly: the city of Palmdale’s loss cost it $4.5 million. Richmond received a demand letter – from Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty – in September, and the council declared its intent to switch to district elections in October.

But the council must first create voting districts to make the switch. Anyone can submit proposals for how those districts should look. At the November 18 workshop, National Demographics Corporation consultant Robert McEntire presented to an audience of about 30 community members the tools available for drawing map proposals.

Organizers provided five laptops for attendees to try the digitally-based map tools, as well as childcare and Spanish interpretation to make the workshop more accessible.

“We don’t normally get such a great turnout. This is wonderful,” McEntire said. Richmond has hired his company, NDC, to facilitate the districting process.

The tools included printable maps for those submitting hand-drawn proposals, as well as an Excel tool that automatically counts overall and minority population numbers in blocs that users can select and merge. A third online map-drawing tool has additional features, such as automatically checking for unmapped areas in a proposal. More information about districting and mapping is available on Richmond’s website.

The consultant McEntire addressed the role ethnicity should play in district map proposals. Community members should focus on “what you believe communities of interest are,” he said, but “it can’t be ethnicity alone.”

From a legal standpoint, the districts should be contiguous, have relatively equal populations and contain a majority of a minority group if possible, attorney and advocate Rafferty told Richmond Confidential at the meeting.

For example, he said, “if you can make a majority Latino district, you must make a majority Latino district.” Attendees were considering a range of priorities in addition to ethnicity, however.

Point Richmond resident Leisa Johnson said issues she had in mind while drawing maps include shoreline-related problems, like potential sea level rise, and proximity to the former Zeneca Inc. industrial site.

Joey Smith, a member of Black Women Organized for Political Action and Richmond Rainbow Pride, highlighted how development will likely change Richmond’s population layout. “I’m just thinking about the amount of high-occupancy residence[s] that are currently being built,” Smith said. “But none of that’s going to be included” in the district map, she added. She also pointed out that affordable units in this high-density housing could include large numbers of unregistered voters.

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