Is San Diego redistricting fair? Ballot measure would rethink who draws the lines

The boundaries of City Council District 1 (in dark blue) were approved by the San Diego Redistricting Commission in 2021.
The boundaries of City Council District 1 (in dark blue) were approved by the San Diego Redistricting Commission in December 2021.
(San Diego Redistricting Commission)

The proposal pushed by two UCSD students would remake the commission that draws City Council districts and change who appoints the commission’s members.


A measure proposed for the March ballot would fundamentally change how San Diego redraws City Council boundaries every 10 years, a controversial process focused on the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities and keeping similar neighborhoods connected.

Supporters of the ballot measure — spearheaded by Leana Cortez and Aashika Srinivas, students at UC San Diego in La Jolla — say it was prompted by concerns that diversity and equity were not prioritized enough when boundaries were last redrawn in 2021.

The key problem, they say, was that the nine-member commission choosing the boundaries that year was not diverse enough, leaving many residents feeling frustrated, confused, unheard and unrepresented.

The proposed measure seeks to reshape that commission by enlarging it from nine members to 13 and changing who appoints its members.

The members are now selected by three retired judges — a group whose demographics skew much more White and male than San Diego’s overall population.

Under the proposal, which got initial approval last month from the City Council’s Rules Committee, the Redistricting Commission would be selected in 2031 by either the city’s Ethics Commission, the city’s Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission or another panel deemed appropriate.

Supporters haven’t yet determined which panel would appoint the commission if the ballot measure passes, but city officials said that decision will be made before the measure is presented to voters.

The commission would continue to have one member from each of San Diego’s nine council districts, but the four additional members would be chosen citywide and would be urged to lobby on behalf of the city as a whole, not just the council district where they live.

The four members tasked with taking a citywide perspective would be chosen after an initial nine appointees are selected. Those nine would pick the four at-large members.

“We thought in the previous redistricting cycle that a lot of the commissioners were acting as representatives of their district only,” Cortez said.

Adding four members with a citywide perspective could boost the role in the process of coalitions and ethnic groups that span multiple council districts, Cortez said.

The Rules Committee unanimously endorsed the proposed measure at its July 26 meeting, but committee members expressed concerns about which panel would end up picking the initial nine members of the Redistricting Commission.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said the Ethics Commission already has a large workload.

In addition, that commission is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, creating the potential for conflicts of interest and making San Diego’s redistricting process more politicized.

Deputy City Attorney Kathy Steinman said the ballot proposal raises significant legal issues.

“When the city charter sections related to redistricting were amended to add an independent appointing authority to the independent Redistricting Commission, the intent in using retired judges was to guarantee the appointing authority had no relation with city of San Diego elections,” Steinman told the Rules Committee.

Cortez and Srinivas said they also will explore other options for who would name redistricting commissioners, including the Citizens Equal Opportunity Commission.

They said another option could be a system modeled on Oakland’s appointing panel, which includes a retired judge, a local nonprofit leader and a local student of law or public policy. They also mentioned having a computer pick randomly from candidates deemed qualified.

Cortez and Srivinas said San Diego’s use only of retired judges is out of step with other big cities in California. Among the state’s 10 most populous cities, San Diego is the only one to rely exclusively on retired judges.

The two students are part of a nonprofit called Our Time to Act United. Cortez also is a youth liaison and policy intern for City Councilman Kent Lee.

Council boundaries must be redrawn every 10 years in response to new U.S. Census data on the city’s population and ethnic demographics.

The nine-member commission chosen in 2021 included three lawyers, an educator, a retired fire chief, an economist, a fiduciary accountant, a nonprofit official and a former school board member.

Six of the members were White, one was Black, one was Latino and one was Asian — making the panel two-thirds White. At the time, San Diego’s population was 43 percent White, 29 percent Latino, 17 percent Asian, 6 percent Black and 3 percent multiracial.

The 2021 commission created a largely Asian district by shifting University City from District 1 into District 6 with Mira Mesa and created three heavily Latino districts.

It also moved Pacific Beach from District 2 into District 1 with La Jolla, leaving District 2 with Ocean Beach, Point Loma, Mission Beach and Clairemont.

District 1, which includes La Jolla, will now include Pacific Beach but will lose University City.

Dec. 17, 2021

In addition, the commission reunited several San Diego neighborhoods — including Clairemont, Linda Vista, Normal Heights and Rancho Peñasquitos — that had been chopped up in 2011.

But critics say the panel should have prioritized minorities’ voting power more and focused less on reuniting neighborhoods that had been divided. ◆