A powerful new governmental body has quietly begun a task that will have far-reaching consequences for the rights of minority voters throughout California for years to come.
As all eyes turn to Gov. Jerry Brown, the new Legislature, and their efforts to whip a deeply dysfunctional California into working order, the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission has begun its own work almost unnoticed. Yet its decisions will have an enormous impact on who runs California—and the kinds of policies and laws those men and women make—for the next decade and beyond.
The 14-member panel, selected from 30,000 civic-minded applicants in a complicated process that took much of last year, is more diverse than California’s population as a whole, with four Asian/Pacific Islanders, three Latinos, two blacks, and one Native American. Although white/non-Hispanics comprise about 42 percent of the state’s population, only three of the commission members are white.
Members include a retired high school principal, an architect, a chiropractor, and an insurance broker—but also a former director of the U.S. Census and a number of people with experience in nonprofits and local government. By law, five are Democrats, five are Republican, and four are either independents or members of smaller parties.
WHO’S WHO: Click here to read about the redistricting commission’s diverse members.
Their job is to carve up California’s growing population—approximately 37 million, according to 2010 Census estimates—into voting districts that will elect representatives to the U.S. Congress, the state Legislature, and the state Board of Equalization, which oversees many tax issues.
“I want to be part of a solution that restores faith in the electoral process and improves the effectiveness of state government,” Democrat Cynthia Dai, a consultant for high-technology companies from San Francisco, said in her application to join the panel.
“I am applying … out of a deep concern that unless reformed, California may be unable to effectively address the problems it faces as well as maximize the opportunities that will enable the people of California to pursue and fulfill their potential,” wrote Stanley Forbes, a bookstore owner and registered independent from the Yolo County town of Esparto.
New Process Is Historic Shift
The commission, established by Proposition 11 in 2008, represents a seismic shift in how voting districts are created in the nation’s largest and most diverse state.
“For the first time, districts will be drawn by people who will be knowledgeable, impartial and as diverse as the state,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, one of the main proponents of the new process, said in November. “The new lines will not be drawn to simply protect an incumbent’s ability to win reelection over and over again.”
The U.S. Constitution requires that boundaries for voting districts be redrawn every 10 years, using the most up-to-date Census data. In California and other states, the process has traditionally been controlled by politicians and power brokers from the two major parties.
As a result, partisan politics—and racial and class bias—often wins out over fairness and justice. Incumbents draw “safe” districts to keep themselves in office and their parties in power.
Minority Power Diluted
Minority and ethnic communities, meanwhile, are often carved up in ways that dilute their voting strength and make it difficult if not impossible to elect their own representatives.
In the redistricting that occurred 10 years ago, for example, a heavily Latino section of the San Fernando Valley was split in two to protect U.S. Rep. Howard Berman—a Democrat—from being challenged by a Latino candidate.
In another part of Los Angeles, the large Korean community was carved into three smaller Assembly districts, thus preventing it from electing a Korean candidate. Likewise, the majority-Asian Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose was divided among four legislative districts.
“Whether communities are kept together or split up makes all the difference in whether the [political] game is fair,” says Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
“You can have a community that is very actively engaged in the civic process,” she adds, “but if the lines are not drawn in a fair way, then all that work won’t produce political gains and political progress.”
The new commissioners acknowledge their role in making sure that California’s minorities are treated fairly in the redistricting process going forward.
“Perhaps at no time in our history has redistricting been so important to the strengthening of our republican form of democracy,” Libert “Gil” R. Ontai, a San Diego architect and ex-city planning commissioner, says in a statement on the commission’s website, wedrawthelines.org.
“I represent the underrepresented,” says M. Andre Parvenu, an African-American urban planner and community outreach specialist from Culver City. “It is important to draw lines and district boundaries that will work favorably and serve in the best interest of every citizen in this State. I look forward to this historic opportunity to serve.”
A Daunting Job
Still, the panel’s job—including holding a series of meetings and public hearings up and down the state, with the final redrawn voter maps due in August—promises to be vastly difficult. The commissioners must draw the boundaries for 40 state Senate seats, 80 Assembly seats and four seats on the state Board of Equalization, as well as new district boundaries for California’s 53 congressional seats. Each district must have the same population.
The learning curve for the commissioners will be steep, the issues complicated and confusing, and the commitment of time and energy unrelenting. Indeed, one member, Democrat Elaine Kuo, a former research analyst at UCLA who now lives in Mountain View, resigned from the panel in mid-January, saying the job would take too much of her time. A replacement has not yet been named.
This year, more than in the past, California’s redistricting battles are likely to involve not just white communities versus minorities, but ethnic groups challenging each other over how to draw the boundaries.
Voting rights advocates say some of the key redistricting battlegrounds will include the Inland Empire, which has seen a large increase in Latino residents, and areas around Sacramento, Los Angeles and the East Bay that have seen major shifts in African- American residents.
Minority Voter Input Is Essential
Though reformers hail the new commission, its newness is a concern to many people familiar with the hard-fought redistricting battles of the past across California and the U.S. “When you have people at the table who don’t have any experience or familiarity with the way the Voting Rights Act operates… oversight [by communities and voting rights groups] is very important,” says Kristen Clarke, a redistricting expert with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
Thus, as the commission members get down to business—selecting a staff, educating themselves about the law, and setting a schedule of statewide meetings—voting rights groups are getting busy, too. Their focus over the next few weeks: voter outreach.
For the new redistricting process to work as it was envisioned, advocates say, ordinary Californians—especially Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and other minorities—must get involved.
“Redistricting affects every policy issue,” points out Michelle Romero of the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute. “It is crucial that the diverse voices of California are represented. People need to educate themselves about what redistricting is and show up at public meetings of the commission to tell them, ‘This is my community. Don’t divide it.”
Nina Martin is an editor for New America Media, the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations. This article was originally published on New America Media.