EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday, the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission reached an important milestone, approving final political maps for Congress, the state Legislature, and the Board of Equalization. As the state’s political parties and communities of color analyze what the maps mean for the 2012 elections and beyond, NAM’s Nina Martin spoke to a leading proponent of redistricting reform, Common Cause’s executive director Kathay Feng.
How would you assess the work of the redistricting commission? Has it met the expectations of voters and reformers?
This has been a grand experiment the likes of which we have not seen in other states, so it’s been hard to know what to expect. But for the most part, the commissioners did the right thing. They carried out what voters wanted, which was an open process that would reflect a lot of community voices and input.
How do you measure success? Let’s break it down, starting with the process itself.
The important questions are, has the process been inclusive and transparent? Has there been a real attempt to engage the public? Has there been the creation of some sort of public record, so that if you don’t like the ultimate outcome, there’s documentation and a basis for you to raise your concerns through the courts or the referendum process?
By those measures, I would say that the process largely has worked, though it hasn’t been perfect.
How was the commission picked?
There were real efforts to make the selection process more inclusive. Originally, 30,000 people applied [for the 14 spots]. That pool tended to be heavily weighted toward white, higher-income males. A lot of them were people from the Sacramento area, probably because people who work in state government understand what redistricting is and why it’s so important.
But the process was designed in a way to allow the Bureau of State Audits to take into account those applicants’ skill sets, diversity, etc. So when they whittled it down to the 60 finalists, they had a bunch of people who were much more reflective of the state’s population as a whole. The commission ended up being very diverse [78 percent of the members were people of color].
What about the hearing process—how did that go?
It’s safe to say that the commissioners spent a lot of time thinking about how to schedule and locate the hearings in a way that would maximize peoples’ ability to come and speak. To their credit, they held 35 public input hearings around the state. Whereas in 2001, the Legislature [which was then in charge of redistricting] held fewer than a dozen.
There was a lot of participation. At some hearings, even when the commission limited people to talking for two or three or five minutes, the commissioners still had to stay till late in the evening to hear all the comments. Sometimes so many people showed up, it was hard for them to hang around to wait their turn.
But not all ethnic and minority groups participated to the same degree as whites did.
It’s true, the people who have time to show up at a hearing have always been, and continue to be, the people who are better educated and more connected to the political process and more able to take time off—all those things you’ve tended to see in terms of voter participation and civic engagement generally. But there was a real effort to make the input process inclusive—for example, by allowing people to submit comments online.
What about the redistricting maps—how did they reflect voters’ goals?
One question is: did the maps avoid the problems of the past—lines that favored particular incumbents or parties? I would say the commissioners seem to have hewed very closely to that goal. Many incumbents from both parties will face strong challenges in their new districts in the 2012 elections and many more swing districts have been created. [Not everyone agrees; group of Republican leaders said Monday that the new redistricting plan will be challenged by a referendum drive.]
Another measure is the number of opportunity districts for minorities. [The commission’s first maps, released in June, were widely criticized by minority groups, especially Latinos, as failing to reflect both the requirements of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 and public input about “communities of interest.”] But a lot of people would give the commissioners credit for responding to those comments and making big changes between the first-and second-draft maps.
Should people of color be happy with the final outcome?
From the perspective of Asians, they walked away with a lot of districts that look very good—for example, in the San Gabriel Valley. On the other hand, Fremont, [with an up-and-coming South Asian community that is carved up in the final redistricting maps], would probably say, “We want to be heard better next time.”
For African Americans, who are a community that’s increasingly less concentrated in urban areas and not growing as fast as some other populations, redistricting posed a very complex balancing act. Much of the focus was on districts in the Los Angeles and Oakland areas. For the most part, those communities walked away saying, “OK, the maps are not everything we asked for, but they’re not bad.”
But for Latinos, the outcome has been more mixed. As the fastest-growing population in the state, there was an expectation for a big gain in seats based on a straight mathematical count. The new maps do include more Assembly and congressional seats [though not as many as Latinos wanted], but there haven’t been the same advances at the state Senate level.
Any other ways to measure the success of this new redistricting process?
A final way is the extent to which the commission itself was able to function as a deliberative body. There was a lot of conversation [about the requirement that the commission include five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents or representatives of smaller parties]. But to everybody’s pleasant surprise, they were able to develop enough of a dialogue and consensus among themselves to achieve the required three votes [from each political bloc]. Compared to the Legislature, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
How can we be sure that the redistricting process will work this well in 10 years? How do we know the commission will continue to be diverse and that the members will continue to work hard to fulfill voters’ expectations?
That’s something a lot of us are talking about. I think diversity should improve. But now that we’ve gone through this once, we know there are people and entities that will be thinking about how to game the process next time—for example, by doing the kinds of things to their resumes that make it easier for them to get through the gauntlet. There are concerns that the kind of people who apply next time could be very different and that the pool could be much smaller, that as the excitement of doing something new fades, it will become just another commission.
A lot will depend on finding the right people who truly are sincere about wanting to hew to the goals set forth by voters. Because if someone got into that mix who had a particular agenda to promote, you could imagine how that could skew the whole process.
How do you think the California process compares to that of other states?
No matter how frustrated some people have felt with this commission, it’s nothing compared to how angry people are in other states. I have counterparts in states such as Michigan and Minnesota who tell me, essentially, that legislators are rushing to pass maps and the public input hearings are just for show. Maybe the process is being used to protect incumbents, or one party is trying to stick it to the other. Organizations [like Common Cause] are fighting to get ordinary people involved in the process, but really the negotiations are being done by legislators behind closed doors.
Groups in other states are putting together comparison charts, showing things like the number of hearings, the length of deliberations, the transparency of the deliberation process. Compared to California, the grades are fairly low.
So there’s a lot of interest in other states in replicating this grand experiment?
Definitely—a lot. There are so many people who are disgusted with the back-room politics in their states' redistricting process. California provides hope that there is an alternative to legislature-drawn district maps.
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