SACRAMENTO -- For voters and politicians alike, the search for clarity from the latest drafts of the state's redistricting maps will have to wait.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission -- made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four members registered with neither party -- opted to forgo the publication of the second drafts of the maps, originally due out July 7 and later pushed back to July 14. Instead, the commission Wednesday began publishing interactive online “visualizations” of the maps, less detailed versions that the group said it would update today and again next week.

The commission now has until July 31 to finalize the maps and send them to the secretary of state for approval. If the maps are not adopted by Aug. 15, they will move on to the Supreme Court, subject to approval by a specially appointed judge.

Commissioner Stanley Forbes, a longtime farmer and bookstore owner in Yolo County, said that the group simply fell behind schedule for the second drafts, something he attributed to the sheer volume of comments since the first drafts were released June 10. While the group is not required to publish drafts of the maps under Proposition 11 -- also known as the Voters First Act of 2008 -- Forbes said the feedback was an invaluable tool, and one that the commission would continue to use in the next two weeks as it updates the visualizations.

”This has been much more of a dialogue with the public than I thought it would be,” Forbes said. To date, the commission has received more than 5,200 emails, as well as more than 3,000 comments at public hearings throughout the state.

”Our feeling was that it's important that the map really reflects what we're thinking and what we're doing,” Forbes said, adding that he expects any major alterations to be made by next week in order to leave enough time for the group to issue last minute instructions to its technical line drawing team. “There's no point in putting out a map that's incomplete.”

While the commission continues to tinker with the state's 120 legislative, 53 congressional and four board of equalization districts, Forbes said it is likely that only the more urban areas will see significant changes. In Southern California, for example, even small shifts in the lines can have major effects on the percentage of minority voters in neighboring districts. The commission must also consider a handful of areas protected under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that minority populations receive the same amount or more representation as before the redistricting.

The shape of the lines could mean big changes for North Coast incumbents Mike Thompson and Noreen Evans, both of whom were drawn out of their respective districts in the first draft. Evans' press secretary Chris Moore said that she has not given the draft maps much thought, adding that regardless of how the lines end up, Evans will be representing District 2 for the remainder of her four-year term, which ends in 2014.

”It's just premature at this point,” Moore said. “It's kind of like, why waste the energy on it right now when we have no idea where it's heading?”

For Thompson, D-St. Helena, the situation is a little different. While Evans must live in the district she represents, the U.S. Constitution only requires that Thompson live in the same state. This leaves him with two options, said Ryan Emenaker, an assistant professor of political science at College of the Redwoods.

Thompson could either run in the district the first draft currently puts him in -- which includes Lake, Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties as well as portions of Sonoma, Napa, Yuba and Glenn counties -- or, if he remains drawn out of the 1st District in the final maps, simply run again on the North Coast, an area he's represented since being elected in 1998.

In an interview with the Times-Standard last month, Thompson declined to say which district he would be running for in 2012, instead saying that regardless of the changes, he “will be representing a district.”

The apparent lack of concern did not come as surprise to Emenaker, who said that although this is the first time redistricting won't be done by politicians, the process tends to draw out stronger responses from individual communities. A number of special interest groups throughout the state -- including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the California Friends of the African American Caucus, and the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting -- decried the first drafts of the maps.

”It's not that surprising, because map drawing is always so contentious,” Emenaker said, adding that had the group come out with a second draft they likely would have been met with more hostility than before. “Timelines are hard to meet, and you're always going to have some people that are unhappy.”

With the commission's self-imposed deadline to finish the maps just two weeks away, Emenaker said he expected only minor changes at this point. But even small tweaks could have a big effect on incumbents like Evans, whose downtown Santa Rosa home narrowly missed the first draft lines.

While talk of having a North Coast district that extended east to Redding picked up steam in the months leading up to the first draft, Emenaker said, the focus since has shifted to the politicians rather than the shape or competitiveness of a given district. Forbes all but assured an East-West district won't happen, saying that based on the first draft, people should expect to see a district that runs North-South.

”I don't think that they will be terribly surprised where they end up,” Forbes said.

Assuming that a coastal district remains next year, Emenaker said, the race for seats could result in the first competitive Democratic primaries in more than a decade. After longtime Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, announced her retirement earlier this year, at least two, and potentially three, Northern California districts could be open next year.

Unlike the state Assembly and Senate, congressional seats have no term limits, something that Emenaker said could attract a slew of current legislators who might be contemplating a run.

”If you have a district that doesn't have an incumbent, that's when you see people start to think about their options,” Emenaker said. “If they are ever thinking about running, now is the time.”

Regardless of who ends up winning the congressional seat, Emenaker said, a new representative would likely spend more time in the southern part of the district, something he attributed to a constant need for fundraising. This doesn't bode well for areas like Humboldt and Del Norte county, which according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, has a per capita income more than $10,000 less than the state average, with more than 23 percent of its residents living below the poverty line.

”It's a big district. You're going to have to do some significant fundraising,” Emenaker said. “If you're looking for more bang for your buck, you probably aren't spending a lot of time in Humboldt County; you're probably looking more at places like Marin County.”

Forbes said benefits of having the final draft maps in place extend beyond any city or county. While the commission is not directly tasked with making any district more competitive, Forbes said, the mere fact that decisions are being made without regard to incumbents essentially means that the end result will be a number of new representatives. Gone are the days of largely uncompetitive districts that he said only served to suppress voter turnout.

”This is an example of small democracy at its best. I think that this will encourage the public to reengage in the political process in the sense that their vote will matter again,” Forbes said, adding that while the commission would continue to consider public comment next week, the key to any additional changes is specificity. “The more precision we get, the better at this point. 'Keep us together' is no longer good enough.”

At a glance

July 28 is the self-imposed deadline for the commission to alter the maps. In order to finalize the maps at least nine of the 14 commissioners must approve them with a “yes” vote, including three each from Republicans, Democrats and those affiliated with neither party. For the latest visualizations of the maps -- including downloadable Google Earth files -- visit http://wedrawthelines.ca.gov/.

Matt Drange produced this story for the Times-Standard and California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. He can be reached at mdrange@californiawatch.org.