The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have cast renewed focus on racial inequities that have plagued San Jose for years, with activists saying City Council redistricting has the potential to improve or compromise representation for the city's most disenfranchised residents.
After the completion of the U.S. Census every decade, the City Council must appoint a redistricting committee to redraw the lines of each district. The members must represent each council district and the ethnic makeup of the city, according to City Attorney Rick Doyle. The committee will make recommendations to the City Council on how districts should look for the next 10 years. Advocates working to improve representation for people of color and the East Side say this process is crucial to meeting their goals.
"I think overall just learning about the history of San Jose, you see that there was an important need for us to rethink how we're engaging our voters to create a representative system of governance, but also to ensure that all these barriers that are institutional can be removed," said Victor Vasquez, the director of organizing and policy at the East Side advocacy group SOMOS Mayfair.
Vasquez said educating voters on how they are represented would help improve engagement with San Jose's most disenfranchised populations.
"How we draw the lines, whether we do an at-large or district representative kind of voting, it's definitely something that doesn't get a lot of attention as we need to look at economic and racial justice in our city," Vasquez said.
Doyle said each City Council member appoints someone from their district to the redistricting committee to tally population changes within different districts. The process begins Feb. 1 and the redistricting commission would have 120 days to redraw the city's council districts.
But despite the city's population growth, adding a new district or changing the lines seems unlikely.
Doyle said he hasn't seen significant change in districts in his two decades as city attorney, and most changes typically happen with outlying neighborhoods being added or moved to different districts.
Doyle added that the city must comply with voting rights law and that the commission must avoid zoning by race. The city must also ensure that districts are of comparable size, which is currently about 100,000 residents per district.
"You can't just skew and say we're going to make this 99 percent Hispanic so that we have X number of candidates," Doyle said.
However, Doyle said, if COVID-19 delays the census, it would also delay any potential redistricting in San Jose.
"In terms of the census, is there concern of this? There's absolute concern that people aren't being counted," Doyle said.
Although redistricting has not been used as a political weapon in San Jose, as it has nationally when Congressional districts are redrawn, Doyle said many neighborhoods make efforts to stay together. "The neighborhoods -- they're very sensitive, they don't want to be split up," he said. "That was particularly the case the last time in Willow Glen."
Former Willow Glen city councilman and San Jose State professor Ken Yeager said neighborhoods that aren't split up retain more political power.
He said because Willow Glen has the most representation in its district, its residents typically ensure a candidate from their neighborhood is elected.
"District 6 from the beginning of time always elected somebody from Willow Glen," Yeager said.
Although the veteran politician managed to beat someone from Willow Glen in his City Council race in 2000, he said the neighborhood gained more political power when neighborhoods on its fringe were dropped from the district.
"A lot of the neighborhoods that ultimately got dropped from District 6 are far away from Willow Glen or don't really relate or identify as being part of Willow Glen," Yeager said. "So in this past election there was somebody from Shasta Hanchett ... and also somebody from Willow Glen, and the person from Willow Glen won. It's probably more of a Willow Glen district, making it harder for people to more outlying areas to the west to able to win."
But adding new neighborhoods could increase diversity in districts and in turn grow representation for people of color, he said.
"Districts that are out there that border more ethnic neighborhoods might want to draw their lines further east ... depending on what might be to their advantage," Yeager added.
Vasquez said that the priority for SOMOS Mayfair is increasing awareness about redistricting and boosting representation for Latinos."I feel like in general we have to figure out a better way to reach all the different communities," Vasquez said. "We spend a lot of energy on the census and thinking through what are the best ways to reach out to everyone and I think the same sort of energy has to be put outfor some of these many important committees."
This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight.