Citizen Redistricting in Calif. Earns Praise, With a Dose of Caution

Citizen Redistricting in Calif. Earns Praise, With a Dose of Caution

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The first California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which took over a role formerly reserved for incumbent politicians and used public input to redraw district lines in time for the 2012 elections, has been hailed as a success, according to a new report --though the study cautions that stumbling blocks lie ahead.

“The citizen process, with all of its ups and downs, delivered a better product for the voters than the traditional process of legislators drawing their own lines,” said the report’s author Raphael J. Sonenshein, who directs the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Every ten years, when new census data becomes available, states must redraw their district lines. In 2008, California voters approved a ballot initiative [Proposition 11] that took that power away from the state legislature and gave it to an independent 14-member bipartisan commission in an effort to bring transparency and public input into the process.

According to the report, released this month, the commission earned high marks for transparency and for efforts to engage diverse communities in both the selection of the commissioners and the drawing of the electoral districts. The report noted that the Center for Public Integrity gave the commission a score of 100 percent in an investigation into the transparency of state governing practices.

Proposition 11 included requirements designed to exclude political influence; for example, commissioners could not have contributed more than $2,000 to a political candidate in the past 10 years.

The study notes that the next redistricting commission may face more organized efforts on the part of interest groups and political parties seeking to sway the process, which was created to be nonpartisan as well as free from the influence of elected officials.

The commission will need to have more time for its own training and for gathering data and citizen input, as well as greater organizational support from the state, the report stated.

Commissioned by the League of Women Voters of California, which sponsored Proposition 11, the study was independently conducted by Sonenshein and a team of academic researchers. The study was funded by the James Irvine Foundation.

Proposition 11, which applied to the mapping of State Senate and State Assembly districts, only narrowly passed with 51 percent of the vote. But in 2010, voters widened the reach of the commission to include congressional districts when Proposition 20 passed with 61 percent of the vote.

With oversight from the Bureau of State Audits, 14 commissioners were chosen from a pool of more than 30,000 applicants.

The commission held over 30 public hearings throughout the state to gather input. A key weakness, according to the report, was that the commission lacked structures for organizing the input it received at hearings and through online outreach. As a result, it found itself with less than two months to draw the 177 state and congressional district lines. It released draft maps to the public in June 2011, and the final maps in August.

“Though [the level of support] worked this time, it certainly would not work the next time,” says Sonenshein. “When citizens are making decisions they need the kind of support and planning that government [officials] have.”

In the redistricting process, the state has to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act that protects opportunities for minority communities to elect the candidate of their choice, Sonenshein said.

As the Census does not provide this information, bloc voting data had to be collected and analyzed by a hired consultant, delaying the process. The report recommends that the next commission obtain data on bloc voting patterns much earlier.

Justin Levitt, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who was on the research team and focused on voting rights issues, says that bloc voting data on some communities was “strongly delayed” in being accessed by the commissioners; some data on bloc voting didn’t make it to the commission until mid-July.

Eugene Lee, the Voting Rights Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, notes that the commission’s final maps unified several Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities that had been split by the last round of redistricting in 2001. The commission also created California’s first legislative district in which Asian Americans constitute a majority of eligible voters (Assembly District 49 in the San Gabriel Valley), which Advancing Justice had recommended.

Lee’s organization does, however, see room for improvement. In preparation for the redistricting process, Advancing Justice had created a statewide coalition of organizations that worked to ensure fairness to Asian American communities in the drawing of district lines.
Like Sonenshein, Lee recommends that the commission have a “more systematic method” for compiling public testimony so that commissioners are better able to take public input into consideration.