In a tight 3-2 vote, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to move forward with new boundaries for the county's five supervisorial districts, shifting the balance of power and significantly altering representation in the northern end of the county.
Redrawing the boundaries happens every 10 years following the U.S. Census, and helps preserve the voting power of residents by balancing population between the five districts. But supervisors opted to do more than that, taking extra steps to consider racial balance in each district and prioritize boundaries that don't split cities into more than one district.
The map that ultimately prevailed Tuesday, dubbed the "yellow" or "unity" map, took steps to meet both those objectives, but it also faced significant criticism. Residents opposed to the yellow map contested it was drawn with political motivations in mind and amount to gerrymandering, with the south county district losing Los Gatos and Almaden Valley as its constituents shortly before a key election.
The yellow map, which can be viewed online, will move forward after the Tuesday vote with only minor changes ahead of the state-mandated redistricting process. District 5, which includes Mountain View and Palo Alto, will no longer include any part of Sunnyvale. Instead, the district will creep farther south past Saratoga to include Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and part of San Jose.
The map was drafted with social justice in mind, with many proponents calling for a need to empower disenfranchised voters. The option is backed by labor unions and civil rights groups including the local chapter of the NAACP and the Asian Law Alliance. Though still subject to small revisions, the map shifts racial balance such that Asian residents will have a plurality in District 5 and Latino residents will make up a stronger share of District 1.
The map won out against numerous other options, including one proposed by county Supervisor Joe Simitian that sought minimal changes over today's boundaries. Simitian pitched that Sunnyvale, the largest city outside of San Jose, has benefited from and deserves representation under District 3 and District 5. County Supervisor Otto Lee, who currently represents the other half of Sunnyvale and stands to represent all of the city under the yellow map, disagreed with that assessment, arguing it only dilutes the city's influence.
Public testimony, both at the Nov. 16 meeting and at previous meetings, repeatedly questioned whether the town of Los Gatos and Almaden Valley in south San Jose identify more with District 5, with its relatively affluent suburban communities, or the more rural south county cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Resident Laurel Hanchett said she lives in New Almaden and always identified with her south county neighbors, and that concerns related to fire and infrastructure differ significantly from District 5.
John McGowan of Sunnyvale called the yellow map a product of gerrymandering for short-term political gain, and said it breaks up communities and would be a detriment to the south county.
"I believe the rural parts of the county deserve a voice, from Gilroy to Los Gatos," McGowan said.
But resident Jeffrey Suzuki argued those cities do not have a unified perspective, and that people who live in Los Gatos do not think about Gilroy "at all" and have a stronger connection with the north county.
"People in Los Gatos have more of an affinity with everything from Saratoga to Palo Alto," Suzuki said. "Residents here just don't talk about Gilroy, the people that live there, their transportation infrastructure, nor any of their policies."
Another consequence of the yellow map is that it will have immediate-term consequences in an upcoming election. Two candidates vying to replace county Supervisor Mike Wasserman to represent District 1, former San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis and Los Gatos Town Council member Rob Rennie, both live in areas that will soon be excluded from District 1 and will be ineligible to run. Ahead of the meeting, The Mercury News posted an editorial describing the map as politically motivated and potentially in violation of state and federal election laws.
Wasserman and Simitian both voted against the yellow map, instead supporting an alternative that largely preserves the existing split between District 1 and District 5. Simitian said doing so creates more compact districts — a key goal of the Voting Rights Act — that strives for the least population differences from one district to another.
Simitian underscored that the map that will move forward has a critical flaw in that nine of the 15 cities in Santa Clara County are all jammed into his one district, leaving just one supervisor to represent all of those interests as a sole voice on a board of five people.
"You essentially say we are going to limit or minimize the voice of the smaller cities by pushing them all into one district rather than spreading them out more evenly," Simitian said.
Simitian also pushed back on speakers who said the voices of south county residents could potentially be drowned out by the addition of a west valley city like Los Gatos, noting that the small town makes up a small minority of the district.
"Suggesting that more than 100,000 people in Gilroy and Morgan Hill are somehow dominated by the 30,00 people in Los Gatos — I think that's a hard case to make," he said.
Another hearing on the proposed redistricting map is expected on Dec. 7, followed shortly thereafter with final approval.