Exeter holds redistricting public hearing

Exeter holds first of four redistricting hearings as part of its first foray into redistricting since switching to a district election system

EXETER – The city of Exeter held the first of its four redistricting hearings at the Oct. 26 council meeting and discussed plans to redraw its political boundaries for the next 10 years.

This is the first time Exeter has conducted the redistricting process, as the city previously used an at-large election system until it was intimidated into a district voting system in 2017 when Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes—the Malibu lawyer behind many voting rights litigation threats and lawsuits against California cities—threatened suit by alleging that “voting within Exeter is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and therefore Exeter’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.”

After settling due to the possibility of losing millions in court and carving up the two-stoplight town into five districts, the time has come for the city to adjust those lines for births, deaths and migration in light of the 2020 census.

The first two hearings are to gather community input and information on neighborhoods and communities of interest (COIs) within Exeter. The third and fourth will be used to present draft maps based on community input and the 2020 census data—usually ready for use by March or April but was delayed until August due to COVID-19-related issues. The final numbers were not ready until the end of September in California to allocate the state prison population back to their county of residence.

Exeter has contracted National Demographics Corporation (NDC) to aid in the map making process. Dr. Jeff Tilton, senior consultant for NDC, said the city of Exeter has the luxury of having an April 17, 2022 deadline as their next elections are not until Nov. 2022. Cities and counties that have June 2022 elections are required to have their redistricting maps adopted by Dec. 15, 2021.

Tilton said the process will follow non-negotiable rules for redistricting. Rules outlined in federal law include drawing districts equal in population, in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act and without any racial gerrymandering.

“We can have about a 10% variance in getting that equal population throughout the five districts,” Tilton said. “

Under the current district lines, Exeter has a 19.11% deviation variance, which Tilton said needs to be shored up to be in compliance with federal law. District D has the largest deviation at 10.93% with its 1,850 population, the smallest district in town. Districts C and D follow with just over 8% deviation as the two largest districts in Exeter. The percentages represent how far off the district’s population is from being even across five districts. The California Voting Rights Act also requires there to be a majority-minority district—in the case of Tulare County, a majority Latino district.

The Fair Maps Act of 2019 dictates California’s criteria for cities, which includes drawing districts that are compact and geographically contiguous, undivided neighborhoods and COIs and easily identifiable boundaries.

“[COIs] are areas of shared social or economic interests. They could be or likely are impacted by city policies,” Tilton said. “Communities of interest may not include relationships with political parties and incumbents or political candidates, however.”

Tilton said NDC would “love it if the council would select a map that has been drafted by the public.” NDC will provide the city with three maps, but they are not obligated to choose any of them over a community-drawn map.

“If they drew a map on a napkin, we’ll take it, and we’ll do our best to best represent their thoughts and ideas as it relates to the five districts within the city of Exeter,” Tilton said.

The only public comment was to clarify who NDC is and what deviation variance meant. Tilton said in the absence of public input, the city may review the general plan, emails and documents to collect information on neighborhoods and COIs.

Taxpayer dollars and city time is being spent on redistricting, but the district election system has essentially broken the democratic process in Exeter. The city saw about a 79% turnout at 4,086 votes cast in the record-breaking Nov. 2020 presidential election. None of those votes were cast for new city council members, however, because all of Exeter’s new council members had been appointed in-lieu three months earlier due to a lack of candidates.

Since Exeter’s switch to districts in 2017, Teresa Boyce is the only city council candidate to be elected by democratic process, after defeating Melanie Morton by 44 votes in 2018. Boyce has since stepped down from the council.

Split up between 5 districts, the Nov. 2020 presidential election turnout in Exeter settled out to about 810 votes per district. Finding qualified candidates to run in a democratic election among the roughly 1,040 registered voters in each of Exeter’s districts has proven near impossible so far. Without democratic elections, low bars like 20 signatures from neighbors make for easy entry into a policy-making position.

Tools to aid those interested in public participation in the redistricting process are available on the city’s redistricting web site draw.cityofexeter.com. The remaining hearing dates will be on Nov. 18, Jan. 11, 2022 and Feb. 10, 2022.

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