News & Publications

Redistricting & Voting Rights Update: Your Resource for Redistricting News as the 2020 Census Approaches


Marguerite Leoni & Chris Skinnell Give Webinars on CVRA and Redistricting: In late-October and early-November, Nielsen Merksamer’s leading voting rights practitioners, Marguerite Leoni and Chris Skinnell, participated in two webinars hosted by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government.

  • The first, on October 24, 2019, at 10-11 a.m., covered differences between the federal and California Voting Rights Acts, the impact of the CVRA on California cities, school districts, and special districts, and on-going litigation concerning its application and validity, including different settlement scenarios.
  • The second, on November 7, 2019, at 10-11 a.m., explained the redistricting process at the local level, applicable law, and best practices for local agencies, including the newly-enacted legislative overhaul in A.B. 849.

More information, including recordings of the webinars, is available on the Rose Institute website, here.

Governor Newsom Signs Major Overhaul of Local Redistricting Rules. Governor Gavin Newsom signed sweeping new legislation that comprehensively overhauls the rules for redistricting after the 2020 Census for California cities, charter cities, and counties. The new law, AB 849, significantly changes the criteria, timing, and procedures for redistricting. These changes are mandatory for affected cities and counties. Specifically, AB 849:

  • Revises and standardizes redistricting criteria, procedures, and requirements that cities and counties must follow when they adopt or adjust the boundaries of their electoral districts.
  • Cities and counties with districts are required to establish district boundaries, to the extent practical, based on the following criteria in the following order of priority:
    1. Population equality of the residents of the county or city as determined by the census.
    2. Compliance with United States Constitution, the California Constitution, and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
    3. Districts shall be geographically contiguous.
    4. Geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes its division.  Importantly, “communities of interest” do not include the relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.
    5. Districts of counties shall respect the geographic integrity of a city or census designated place.
    6. District boundaries should be easily identifiable and understandable by residents.  Natural and artificial barriers, streets, or boundaries of cities or counties shall bound districts.
    7. To the extent practicable, and where it does not conflict with the preceding criteria in this subdivision, supervisorial or council districts shall be drawn to encourage geographical compactness in a manner that nearby areas of population are not bypassed in favor of more distant populations.
  • District boundaries may not be adopted for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against a political party.
  • The board or council must hold at least four public hearings where the public may provide input regarding the composition of the districts.
  • Establishes specific timelines for the adoption of a plan following each census.
  • Limits the circumstances in which district lines can be altered between censuses.

Establishes requirements for public outreach, including to minority communities, and specific means by which information about the process is to be disseminated, including the requirement that each local government maintain a website dedicated to redistricting. (10/8/19)

Multiple Marin County School Districts Move to Trustee Zones: The Marin Independent Journal reports that Trustees for both the San Rafael Board of Education and the Novato Unified School District will soon be chosen by voters living in zones within each school district—a change from the at-large election of Trustees. An attorney threatened the San Rafael Board of Education with litigation under the CVRA unless they moved to Trustee zones. The Novato Unified School District chose to make the change without any such provocation. (9/3/2019)

City of Davis Declares Intention to Move to Districts: On August 13, 2019, the Davis City Council received a staff report and approved a resolution to begin the process of creating districts to elect the City’s Council. Under the resolution’s timeline, the Council will adopt a final ordinance establishing districts on November 5, 2019. A demand letter from Rexroad Law prompted the Council’s action, but the motivations of Rexroad Law and its clients have been the subject of a great deal of speculation and discussion.

Some California Jurisdictions Transition to Districts Without a CVRA Demand Letter: The City of Selma, for example, passed a resolution on July 15, 2019 to move the City’s Council to by-district elections. According to the resolution, the City opted to transition “due to the uncertainty of litigation to defend against a CVRA lawsuit [and] the potentially extraordinary cost of such a lawsuit, even if the City were to prevail.” The Sentinel describes the at-times contentious meeting where the decision was made.

According to Roseville Today, the City of Roseville also intends to transition to district elections without receiving a CVRA demand letter. The report by the City Manager on the issue includes a timeline whereby the transition will be complete by December 4, 2019. (9/3/2019)

Other California Jurisdictions Have Demand Letters Under Consideration: The City of Santa Cruz, for example, announced no action after meeting to discuss a demand letter sent to the City alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act based on the City’s at-large election of its Council. Read more here. California law provides for a 45-day “safe harbor” from litigation for jurisdictions to evaluate a CVRA demand. Action may be forthcoming. (8/31/2019)

Chris Skinnell Talks Partisan Gerrymandering: On August 9, 2019, Chris Skinnell participated in panel at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting to discuss the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on partisan gerrymandering, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The program, which is co-sponsored by the Young Lawyers Division and the Standing Committee on Election Law, addressed the ramifications for the future of drawing election maps.

New Redistricting Rules Proposed (8/2/2019): Just like 10 years ago, California cities and counties must consider redistricting after release of the 2020 Census results, but the rules may be very different than in the last round of redistricting.

AB 849 (Bonta) Click here for the text of the bill

Status: Passed Assembly (55-20); Amended by Senate Appropriations

Next Step: Senate Floor scheduled for September 3, 2019

Summary of Some Key Provisions:

This bill applies to all cities, general law and charter alike, and to counties.

The bill changes how populations are determined for redistricting purposes, including counting incarcerated persons whose last known place of residence is within a jurisdiction (compare the long-standing opinion of the California Attorney General here). Once the law is settled, we will provide more information on the topic.

The bill establishes mandatory criteria to be considered in redrawing district boundaries.  The criteria, in priority order are:

  1. Geographic contiguity
  2. Minimizing the division of communities of interest, which is defined as “a population that shares common social or economic interests that should be included within a single [] district for purposes of its effective and fair representation”
  3. Geographic integrity of a political subdivisions and census designated places (counties only)
  4. Ease of district boundary identifiability and understandability by residents
  5. Geographic compactness
  6. Not favoring or discriminating against a particular political party
  7. For charter cities, there is a provision about assigning district numbers.

The bill changes the timing for redistricting: no earlier than August 1, 2021 and no later than 151 days before the jurisdiction’s regular election occurring after March 1, 2022. If the jurisdiction fails to meet that deadline, the power to redistrict falls to the superior court.

The bill increases the number of public hearings required for redistricting legislation, specifies the timing of public hearings, and mandates public outreach, among other procedural changes.


AB 1724 (Salas) Click here for the text of the bill

Status: Introduced

Next Step: Assembly Elections and Redistricting hearing cancelled at the Author’s request


This bill would require every general law city and county to establish an independent redistricting commission to adjust boundary lines for districts for the legislative body following each decennial census, with certain requirements for commission membership and selection.


SB 139 (Allen) Click here for the text of the bill

Status: Passed Senate (29-7); Amended by Assembly Appropriations

Next Step: Assembly Floor scheduled for September 3, 2019


This bill would require a county with more than 400,000 residents to establish either a 9- or 12-member independent redistricting commission to adjust boundary lines for districts for the Board of Supervisors following each decennial census.

The bill specifies qualifications for commission members and specifies that the political party affiliation of the commission’s members shall be proportional to the county’s party registration, with qualifications.

The bill also specifies additional aspects of the commission application and selection process.