By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Even the keenest political observers typically don’t pay much attention to the decennial process of adjusting California’s boundaries for local, state, and federal elected offices until the line-drawing process begins in earnest. But for Karin Mac Donald and her small but mighty team at Berkeley Law’s Statewide Database, it’s the focus of constant attention — and years of effort.
Since 1992, the office has been the official repository for redistricting data in the state, collecting and processing information from the U.S. Census and other sources to fuel redistricting for everything from local city offices to the U.S. House of Representatives. California has a tightly-scripted set of laws surrounding the process, and the federal Voting Rights Act imposes additional rules.
“That’s just a tiny little bit of pressure on you if you’re the one-stop shop for every single jurisdiction in the state of California,” Mac Donald, director of the database, says with a rueful laugh.
The office collects data from the state’s 58 registrars of voters to get the precinct-level data and geography, then organizes them into a statewide pool. The Census Bureau, in turn, organizes its information by tracts known as census blocks — which, naturally, don’t square with the voter data.
Enter Mac Donald and her team, who basically merge the two, creating a database that has the precinct data organized by census block and vice versa.
“That’s what voting rights analysts need to evaluate the districts,” Mac Donald says. “That’s a big component of what we do.”
Overcoming obstacles and delays
Redistricting is often a difficult process, but the 2021 edition had more hurdles than usual. First, the Census Bureau was late in releasing its critical data, in part because of a protracted fight over whether undocumented residents would be counted.
Second, this round was the first time incarcerated people were required to be reallocated to where they had lived previously rather than where the census counted them — inside the prison — to ensure they’re represented within their home community. That required additional consultation and, at times, sleuthing to figure out where inmates needed to be counted.
The third challenge was how to help the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is responsible for drawing the new boundaries, comply with mandates to keep neighborhoods and communities together as much as possible. The Voters FIRST Act, which California voters approved in 2008, took redistricting out of the hands of politicians, created the commission, and set out goals to try and avoid the Rorschach-like gerrymandered boundaries that have become fodder for legal battles nationwide.
One of those goals — that the commission work to minimize the division of cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of interest — sparked the creation of an online mapping tool by the Statewide Database team: Draw My CA Community. This was then expanded into a separate online tool that allowed users to draw entire districts called Draw My CA District.
Finally, the Statewide Database team developed a California redistricting plugin for the open-source Geographic Information System QGIS to let users access Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tools without owning the entire software package.
Building the tools, Mac Donald says, was “the biggest gamble of my career,” and pushed the team’s boundaries.
“We basically became software developers,” she says. “And we just kept working out the bugs, almost in real time.”
She says the organization didn’t track users directly, but that thousands of people used it and sent submissions to the commission. Some drew full districts, others their particular community, to help commissioners identify and understand areas that need to be kept together.
Mac Donald and her regular team of three — Jaime Clark, Seth Neill, and Linus Kipkoech — expanded to roughly two dozen, including UC Berkeley students, over the course of the project. Some staffed a hotline to help users on their mobile devices or home computers with problems. Others worked in one of the six pop-up hubs the database opened throughout the state to give people without online access the ability to use the tools.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions sometimes made the in-person centers difficult to keep open, she says, but those who used them were grateful.
“Some of them just wanted a quiet place to sit down to use the computers,” she says. “In some of the redistricting sites, we definitely had a little fan club, people who were really appreciative of having a site manager there in person and being able to use the technology with some help.”
The new statewide maps were finalized in December; some local jurisdictions are still working to finalize their versions.
For Mac Donald, who has spent her career pushing for greater recognition of the value of keeping like-minded “communities of interest” together, the effort has been particularly rewarding. She’s also the director of Berkeley Law’s Election Research Administration Center and the state’s liaison to the Census Redistricting and Voting Rights Data office, and served as a consultant to the effort to get the California Citizens Redistricting Commission off the ground.
“There’s no database of where communities of interest are. So if you’re trying to keep them together, first, you need to know where they are. And for that, you need people to participate,” she says. “This is a process that’s done bottom up, it can’t be top-down.”
It’s the same thing with neighborhoods, she says: Realtors and NextDoor can tout boundaries all they want, but it’s the residents who know the real lines.
“People on the ground will tell you they’re the experts,” Mac Donald says. “So that’s what we tried to do — find a way so people could let the commission know where their communities are, so that they had a much higher chance to keep those communities together.”
The online tools were designed to be easy to use and translated into more than a dozen languages. More importantly, she says, they sent a signal that California takes communities and their interests seriously. She hopes the state can be a model for a redistricting process drained of partisan politics and steeped in the principles of representative democracy.
“This is completely cutting edge,” Mac Donald says. “There is nothing even remotely like this any place else in the United States. This was inventing the wheel, not reinventing the wheel. And it’s made a big difference for all of us.”