CA120: Redistricting commission gets up to speed

A close-up of part of Northern California from a map of the United States. (Photo: SevenMaps, via Shutterstock)

The California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission has now seated all 14 members that will redraw the state’s legislative, congressional and Board of Equalization seats in 2021.

This team is comprised of eight commissioners selected through a random draw among 35 finalists, and the remaining six are chosen through a selection process intended to balance out the commission on a number of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, geography and skill sets.

The commission will draw up the maps for 40 state Senate and 80 Assembly seats, four Board of Equalization seats and as many as 53 congressional districts, although California may actually lose one or two congressional seats. The commission is required to have the lines done in time for the 2022 elections, with the specific deadline to be determined by when the U.S. Census process is completed and data is returned to the states.

The big story after the random selection phase was the lack of ethnic diversity. As we reported in an article about the Lucky Eight, Latinos comprise 40 percent of the state’s population, and 30 percent of the eligible voters, yet there was not a single Latino in this initial pool. This sparked calls from social justice organizations, legislative leaders, and even a couple members of the 2011 redistricting commission.

Additionally, the two Asian commissioners were not from the East Asian communities that comprise most of the state’s Asian population, causing many of the states leading Asian-American leaders and associations to chime in.

While the ethnic composition was clearly top of mind, making these selections wasn’t going to be easy. Not only did they have a limited pool of remaining applicants to choose from, they also were required to pick among partisan pools: two Democrats, two Republicans and two from neither major political party. And every selection would have additional consequences.

For example, selecting the two Latino Republicans would help balance the ethnic composition, but both Latino Republicans were from Northern California. Selecting geographically diverse members could negatively impact the diversity of skill sets, and focusing on getting a commissioner with a legal background or experience with demographic research could be affected by trying to balance geography or ethnicity.

There is a massive, 300-mile-long swath of California from Stockton to northern LA and a 200-mile-wide stretch from the Central Coast to Inyo County with no representation on the commission.

To complicate things, the first eight were required to select the next six commissioners on a slate. The idea with this is to force the commissioners to confront the tradeoffs in the set of the next six commissioners, rather than picking one at a time and only being able to see the real impacts on diversity in retrospect.

In the end, the commission achieved their diversity by appointing independents Pedro Toledo from Petaluma and Linda Akutagawa from Huntington Beach; Republicans Alicia Fernandez from Clarksburg and Russell Yee from Oakland; and Democrats Patricia Sinay from Encinitas and Angela Vasquez from Los Angeles.

This resulted in adding four Latino commissioners and two additional Asian Commissioners – including eight women, six men – and bringing in commissioners with academic, administrative, and nonprofit backgrounds. In fact, the diversity is so deep, every commissioner representative of at least one of the following communities: female, Latino, Asian, African-American, LGBTQ or disabled.

The one area in which the commission failed to achieve diversity was its geographic representation.

The northern-most representatives are from Clarksburg and Petaluma, denying any membership for “true” Northern California or the State-of-Jefferson communities. The Southern Central Valley was also deprived of representation, with two representatives from Stockton and Tracy in San Joaquin County, but no commissioners from the rest of the Central Valley, including the previously Section 5 Voting Rights Act counties of Monterey, Kings, Kern, and Merced.

There is a massive, 300-mile-long swath of California from Stockton to northern LA and a 200-mile-wide stretch from the Central Coast to Inyo County with no representation on the commission.

Close observers realized that the final slate had been proposed and failed a day earlier with just three votes. But the commission was not going to be rushed.

Many of us who had followed the commission process closely had a pretty good idea of who would be selected in this next six – the only one who was a bit off the radar was Commissioner Russell Yee, a Republican pastor from Oakland.

But while the outcome was a bit predictable, the real question was how the commission would get there. This wasn’t just a chance for us to track the outcome, it was an opportunity to see the personality and cultural dynamics of the commissioners, how they would think, communicate, deliberate and, finally, come to their decisions.

The final slate was selected after days of debate about the balance of skill sets, ethnic and gender diversity, and lots of discussion about geographic representation. The geographic element was one of the most critical tradeoffs that the commissioners grappled with.

That decision was made after days of debate: Among limited options, geographic diversity was something that could be made up for by doing more outreach throughout the state, and fixing this shortcoming was much easier than fixing the shortage of life experiences and diversity among the commissioners themselves.

Close observers realized that the final slate had been proposed and failed a day earlier with just three votes. But the commission was not going to be rushed. They wanted to hear more public input, and they got it. Dozens of callers chimed in, including prominent state and community leaders like former Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo and former Secretary of State candidate Dan Schnur.

At one point, a commissioner began to gripe about the seemingly “coordinated” testimony on behalf of one of the applicants, and that got us on the edge of our seats. One key question was if the commission would view large sets of single-message testimony as less valuable because it seemed organized.

The reaction was swift, with several commissioners encouraging their members to listen closely to all testimony, without trying to tease out motive or potential organization. They weren’t ready to dismiss input, even if it seemed as though the callers might share an agenda.

Another element we were closely watching was just how independent this commission would be from their own staffing.

We also got a glimpse of how this commission might function as long as the state is under COVID restrictions that will limit in-person meetings of the full body, and eliminate the packed-rooms of activists that we saw in 2011. Some of it was comical, with the AT&T operator seemingly taking on a role as important as the commissioners themselves, and one of the former commissioners suggesting that the ability to hold virtual meetings should be a “protected class.”

Conducting remote hearings on complex issues such as redistricting has challenges.

Earlier this year I had to conduct three hearings with the City of Napa as they completed their districting process via remote hearings – working to show maps via webconference, then balancing community input by having some emails from the public read into the record by the city clerk, and having others call in with feedback. So, I am sympathetic to the challenges – but how this commission chooses to conduct itself in this environment could have real impacts on their final product.

Another element we were closely watching was just how independent this commission would be from their own staffing. A staff-driven commission might have the trains running on time and getting to the final maps quicker, but that would come at the expense of the deliberative, transparent process that could undermine its citizens commission’s moniker.

On this score, the first eight commissioners appeared to be taking their own lead, not handing over their power to the state auditor’s office or attorneys. They seemingly wanted to figure things out on their own, even if it meant that they would spend a couple extra days debating issues, only to come to roughly the same position they were at on day one.

The process of drawing down information and confronting all the tradeoffs — all under the constant gaze of the public, media and organizations, — allowed the last commission to have confidence in their final product and gave the public a sense that it was being heard. Some decried Commissioners for not just do what the experts were saying, but the 2011 members understood they were not just there to “get it right.” They were also there to get it done in a way that engender public trust in the final product.

The new commission’s next challenge in establishing their independent control over the process could come at their very next hearing scheduled for August 26. The State Auditor’s office, without input from the commission or public, requested proposals for line drawing consultants and critical staff positions. The question lingers if the commission will take the opportunity to put their own stamp on the process through an open, transparent discussion of the criteria they want to have for these positions, or if they will surrender their authority to others. 

These coming hearings will be all online and likely have public input. It will be interesting to see how these new commissioners interact with the initial eight, and if there becomes any friction within the membership, or with the Auditor staff, as they become more comfortable with the process and develop their own roles and style of dealing with each other.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a redistricting consulting firm.

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