In the final months before American citizens fill out the census, political controversy tends to grip the public’s attention. Last year, for example, a question over citizenship status, pushed by the previous presidential administration, invoked a furious battle over immigration that didn’t end until federal courts permanently blocked the question — and still, most latinx Americans worried the feds would use census data against them months later.
Entering the Spring of 2021, however, most Americans have all but forgotten about the census. But that doesn’t change the fact that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission has already begun the process of deciding how they will redraw districts this year, determining the fate of Congressional, State Senate, State Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts.
On Wednesday, March 31, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission announced contracts with the consulting firms HaystaqDNA and Q2 Data & Research, LLC, to help advise the process. The commission was created in 2008 under the Voters FIRST Act, in an effort to put the power of redistricting in the hands of a citizen-led council rather than elected legislators. That means the 2020 census is only the second census this group has been responsible for interpreting, and these two firms will be important players guiding them through the process.
Luckily, there’s a hometown hero: Q2 is a small, woman-owned consulting firm from Oakland, CA. They specialize in interpreting census data and redistricting, and often work with Bay Area research institutions UC Berkeley and Stanford. The firm’s owner and senior researcher, Karin Mac Donald, spends much of her time as the Director of the Election Administration Research Center at UC Berkeley. In fact, she says many of the other researchers she hires work part time elsewhere, too, and that only five researchers will be involved in this particular project. For this reason, Q2 only accepts a few projects a year and keeps a fairly narrow focus. If you hadn’t heard of them before, you’re not the only one — but don’t be fooled, this firm has advised redistricting in cities as large as San Diego and San Francisco. They also helped the Commission after the last census, in 2011.
“Census data are used for so many different purposes — everything from federal funding, assessing voting rights, or various grant programs,” says Mac Donald. Even when she’s working with local universities, she says nearly all of her work involves or is related to the census. “Census data is very important, and I think it’s exciting, but I also think most people are bored by it.”
Though Mac Donald may think it’s boring, the work is crucially important — and at times, even absurd. One time, for example, Mac Donald found and eliminated tiny districts in San Francisco, which encompassed only the medians along Van Ness Avenue. Then, once, every ten years, Mac Donald finds herself drowning in work, categorizing thousands of pieces of census data. “A running joke with us is ‘enjoy your day off in 2022!’” she says.
Though much of HaystaqDNA’s work is nonpartisan, they’ve done a considerable amount of work collecting data on democratic issues and for democratic campaigns. In fact, the firm was founded by the directors of data targeting and data analytics for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. But they’ve also done reputable work on nonpartisan projects. Mac Donald highlights their work with the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in 2011, which had been fraught with controversy and drawn-out legal battles in 2001, as one of the main reasons she trusts them to do nonpartisan work. Though this contract is the first time the California Citizens Redistricting Commission has agreed to work with HaystaqDNA, their last redistricting process with Q2 didn’t show any signs of partisanship.
The process of redistricting will take several months, and at the moment, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission hasn’t announced a deadline. In the meantime, however, Californians are encouraged to use the online tool, drawmycacommunity.org, to draw borders around their own communities and submit them to the Commission for consideration.