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Los Angeles County Gerrymanding: Did the Board of Supervisors' Redistricting Decision Violate the Federal Voting Rights Act?

By Hillel Aron

After a seemingly endless session that included hundreds of public speakers, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a redistricting plan, 4-1, with Gloria Molina the dissenting vote, yesterday.

Why does this matter? Isn't gerrymandering -- the redrawing of the lines in which Los Angeles voters cast their votes -- really a game for powerful insiders? Not exactly. You should know this stuff because it gets down to whether race and ethnicity should be the primary issues leading up to elections in wildly diverse, polyglot Los Angeles County. Here's what happened yesterday:

The board had met to debate three separate plans.

Molina's (a Latino) plan to add a Latino-majority seat at the expense of Zev Yaroslavsky's (a white guy) seat (the plan known as T1), Mark Ridley-Thomas' (a black guy) plan to add a Latino seat at the expense of Don Knabe's (a white guy) seat (S2), and Knabe's plan to essentially preserve the status quo (A3).

As expected, all three plans failed because any redistricting plan needs four votes.

But Supervisor Mike Antonovich was ready for this, and everyone knew what was going to happen:

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors quickly moved to a closed session behind shut doors, on advice of the board's counsel, since a lawsuit is hanging over the board by those who claim the board is ignoring the race-based requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Twenty minutes later the five supervisors were back, this time with A3 amended - Knabe's plan with a few alterations. A couple of census tracts shifted around from one district to another, and a total of 277,283 people were moved into different voting districts.

The questions was, would Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flip his vote to support the compromise? And if so, what would his justification be?

"I've said T1 would be the correct map," Ridley-Thomas began, sounding a bit sheepish.

"And there is a rather obvious lack of consensus for embracing [the maps] S2 or T1. And regrettably, we find ourselves in a circumstance where a federal court will determine that a second [Latino] district is legally required.

"I think we ought to, in fact, hasten to getting to closure, getting a ruling that will cause the Voting Rights Act to be complied with. When there is no compromise, the court will decide..."

And with that, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flipped his vote.

Um.... huh?

A translation of what Mark Ridley-Thomas was saying (we think): We need to come up with something, so let's just pass this, the courts will probably overturn it anyway.

It should be noted that the amended plan, which had clearly been prepared well in advance of the meeting, involved no public comment period and was not debated at all.

Because that's how the Board of Supes do it.

A lawsuit, citing the Voting Rights Act, is widely expected.

The opponents hope to convince the courts to craft a newly drawn district that probably wipes out Zev Yaroslavsky's heavily Westside and Hollywood district and creates one whose boundaries reach in dramatically different directions, capturing enough Latino voters around the county to create a "majority Latino" district.

For further reading please see:

L.A. County Approves Status Quo

And, L.A. County Redistricting Battle Explained--Without Maps!

And, The Politics of the L.A. County Redistricting Explained -- With Venn Diagrams!