a map of the city council districts
The current City Council district map was approved after the 2010 census. Credit: City of Berkeley Credit: City of Berkeley

Berkeley began its decennial redistricting process with a public hearing July 10. The process will redraw City Council district boundaries, which could be used as soon as the 2022 election. If the process becomes drawn out, the new map would be used in the 2024 election.

The last redistricting process, which took place after the 2010 census, proved contentious in Berkeley, stretching until 2014 and dividing City Council members over the creation of a student district and ultimately resulting in a lawsuit.

This time, the redistricting process comes with some new rules.

After voters passed Measure W1 in November 2016 with an 88% vote, the process will be governed by an independent commission, not by City Council members themselves.

It will also be the first time that district lines can be drawn to exclude sitting City Council members. California election code was changed in 2016 to prohibit consideration of the residence of sitting councilmembers during municipal redistricting. Berkeley’s city charter has been similarly revised.

Previously, City Council members could not be drawn out of their districts, which led to awkward designs. The “hat” currently at the top of District 4 is where then-councilmember Jesse Arreguín lived during the redistricting process. The “tail” now at the bottom of District 7 was drawn to include the home of then-councilmember Kriss Worthington.

After the last redistricting process, Arreguín spoke out in support of assigning decisions about district boundaries to an independent commission. “Berkeley’s redistricting process is broken and the only way to fix it is by taking the power to draw district lines out of the hands of the Council,” Arreguín wrote in 2014. Arreguín argued that only an independent commission could free the process of what he described as “partisan self-interest.”

The purpose of the redistricting commission is “to ensure that the redistricting process is conducted with integrity, fairness, and without personal or political considerations,” said City Clerk Mark Numainville, the secretary for the redistricting commission.

There are 13 members on the commission, five of them at-large. With a few exceptions for conflicts of interest, anyone over 18 years old living in Berkeley could have applied to become a commissioner. District commissioners were selected by lottery, while at-large commissioners were voted in by the district commissioners to achieve community representation, taking into account age, race, gender and geographic diversity.

City Council members will approve the final map, but Numainville described their role in the process as a “formality,” since they no longer have the power to make any changes to the map.

Redistricting takes place in Berkeley every 10 years, after U.S. Census data are released. The process is meant to ensure that districts include roughly equal populations and that communities are fairly represented in the political process as the population shifts over time.

City Council members first gained the power to redraw district boundaries after voters passed Measure R in 2012 to allow for greater flexibility. Before that, district boundaries were meant to adhere as closely as possible as the boundaries drawn in 1986, when the districts were first drawn. (Berkeley’s City Council members used to be elected at-large.)

But the first map voted on by the council was controversial. While councilmembers supported the creation of a student district, some, including Arreguín, argued that the chosen map unfairly divided UC Berkeley’s student population by separating members of the politically active co-op system from the rest of the student population. The City Council approved the current map in a 6-3 decision in December 2014.

The next month, critics of the map, including members of the City Council, collected enough signatures to force a referendum, at which point the council deferred the decision to voters in the November 2014 election. Berkeley voters approved the map with 63% of the vote.

And while UC Berkeley students petitioned for a student district during the last redistricting process, turnout in the student district — currently represented by 2018 UC Berkeley grad Rigel Robinson — is the lowest in the city. In the November 2020 mayoral election, only 57% of residents in District 7 turned in mail-in ballots as of Dec. 1, compared with a return rate of 73% or greater in the seven other council districts.

There are some signs that point to growing voter engagement in District 7. In 2014, voter turnout for the District 7 City Council race was roughly three to four times lower than in other competitive races. But in the 2018 race, which included Robinson and another young candidate in his 20s, District 7’s voter turnout doubled, though it remained two to three times lower than other council races on the ballot.

Robinson said he doesn’t see the student district as a failed experiment. “Democracy is about ensuring that every resident has a voice in the future of our city,” he said. “This independent redistricting process is about making sure that no community’s voice is shut out.”

When deciding on district boundaries, the commission needs to keep districts contiguous and compact, use geography and major traffic arteries to create natural boundaries, maintain roughly equal populations and keep “communities of interest” intact. Communities of interest are made up of individuals who share similar backgrounds, living standards and work opportunities, among other factors, according to the redistricting commission’s presentation July 10.

Historically, redistricting has been used throughout the country as a tool to minimize the power of certain communities, according to Numainville. But in Berkeley, the process specifically aims to keep those communities intact to maintain political power fairly.

“The cohesiveness of the communities of interest is important,” Numainville explained. “The ability of communities of interest to advocate and have an influence on city policy can be diluted if they’re split up between between districts.” Communities of interest should neither be “packed” into one district in a way that limits political reach, nor divided to such an extent that the community has no significant influence in any district.

The commission is asking Berkeley residents to fill out a “community of interest” form. Once census data are released in September, the public will be able to submit proposed maps to the commission. During the last redistricting process, the community submitted seven maps for consideration. The commission should adopt a map by April 1, 2022, in order for the map to be used in the 2022 election. Should the process take longer, the boundaries will be used for the first time in the 2024 election.

Correction: District 7 was drawn to include the home of then-councilmember Kriss Worthington, not Tom Worthington.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...