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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 27th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 48 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 48

Redistricting commission votes to keep controversial demographer

By Kasey Bubnash

Santa Barbara County residents are raising concerns about the demographer selected to help the county redraw its supervisorial districts, a company that some claim has a history of being politically biased and creating districts that protect incumbent elected officials.


DEMOGRAPHICS EXPERT
Douglas Johnson of the National Demographics Corporation stands behind former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at press conference on redistricting reform.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOUGLAS JOHNSON

The National Demographics Corporation (NDC) is a consulting agency that provides demographic analysis, redistricting assistance, and public opinion surveys to state and local governments. NDC has worked on more than 300 such projects in the U.S., including several in Santa Barbara County, and was brought on to help the county’s Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission in October 2020, according to Assistant County Executive Officer Nancy Anderson. 

“We learned of NDC from the city of Santa Barbara, who had contracted with them in a previous engagement and highly recommended them,” Anderson wrote in an email to the Sun. “The cities of Lompoc and Santa Maria also used them successfully. There are not many firms with extensive experience in this field of work, and based on the positive reviews from the cities, NDC was engaged.” 

But that decision was made before all 11 members of the redistricting commission were chosen. The first five commission members—one from each current supervisorial district—were randomly chosen from a pool of around 45 of the most qualified applicants on Oct. 13, 2020. Those five members were then tasked with filling the remaining six commission seats by Dec. 31, 2020. Although the ongoing redistricting process is intended to be almost entirely independent from the county and its elected officials, Anderson said the county appointed NDC to its position in October so that the commission would have independent administrative and demographic services as soon as all commissioners were selected.  

Some community members have a problem with that appointment process, and critics say a new demographer should be chosen through a request for proposal process, which the commission is using to select legal counsel and allows for public input. 

“In the ordinance that created this body, it really puts the power in all of you, the commissioners, to draw the lines, and I think the initiative was called, ‘You Draw the Lines,’” Santa Barbara County resident Spencer Brandt said at a Jan. 19 commission meeting. “But the truth of the matter is that most of the staff work, or all of the staff work, a lot of the legwork really, that goes into what those lines look like is going to be performed by your demographer. And you want to be able to have a demographer that you can trust and rely upon and data that you’re able to inspire confidence in the process.” 

When it comes to the National Demographics Corporation and its president, Douglas Johnson, Brandt said that trust isn’t there for many community members. 

Brandt noted Johnson’s time as a research fellow for the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, another demographic analysis firm that is widely considered to lean Republican and was co-founded by Thomas Hofeller, a Republican political strategist known for his gerrymandering tactics. NDC itself, Brandt said, has been criticized by residents of cities across the nation for drawing district boundaries that prioritize and benefit incumbent politicians over the people district-based elections are intended to help.  

Several other community members and organizations share Brandt’s concerns, including the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara, which asked in a Jan. 7 letter to the redistricting commission that it request proposals for the demographer position. 

“There is still time to do a robust search and interview your options for a demographer, as other independent commissions have done,” the letter reads. “There are several very qualified law firms and demographic service companies in California and nationally who would likely bid if there is an open, transparent, and competitive process.” 

But at the Jan. 19 meeting, commissioners said the actual map-drawing process won’t be left entirely up to NDC, and instead will be open, transparent, and involve significant community input. Commissioners decided to continue their services with NDC, but emphasized that the contract can be discontinued at any time with a 30-day notice. In the meantime, commissioners directed the county to build a list of other demographers who might be interested in working on the redistricting process if things with NDC don’t work out. 

The redistricting commission also invited community members to send in their questions regarding NDC’s history and experience. 

While NDC President Johnson told the Sun that many of the accusations against him and his company are inaccurate and misleading, he’s happy to address the public’s concerns and plans to do so at a meeting in the near future. 










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