Ten years ago, I sat in my office cubicle. I squinted to make out the grainy online image of Elaine Howle, the California State Auditor, pulling out a series of bingo balls. My desktop speaker crackled, and it was hard to read the numbers on the balls. I kept the volume low so my coworkers couldn’t eavesdrop.
My cell phone rang and I let it kick to voicemail. I quickly searched online and reminded myself that the number was from the Sacramento area code. When my phone rang again a minute later from the same number, I answered the call.
“Is this Connie Malloy?” an official sounding voice asked.
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
“This is the California State Auditor’s office. Are you still willing and able to serve on California’s Citizen Redistricting Commission?”
I never thought that I — a newly minted urban planner barely in my 30s who had never served on any board or a commission — would get selected.
I had only a hazy concept of what I was being asked to do. I’d just recently discovered one of democracy’s dirtiest secrets: Politicians in the United States pick their voters, not the other way around. They do it by drawing their own electoral district maps behind closed doors with their staff and high-paid consultants.
California voters had approved two ballot initiatives to solve this. It was the first time everyday people would use fair criteria in a transparent process to draw the state’s Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization, and Congressional districts that would be in play for the upcoming decade.
Over 30,000 people had applied to serve on the redistricting commission. I never thought that I — a newly minted urban planner barely in my 30s who had never served on any board or a commission — would get selected.
But I had filled out forms, written essays, disclosed everything about my multi-racial families by birth, adoption, and marriage, and made it through a grueling 90-minute interview with three auditors that was live-streamed and archived. I hadn’t done all that for nothing.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m ready to serve.”
All the politicians in Sacramento wanted us to fail. The media attacked our every move.
In 2011, my fellow 13 Commissioners and I had less than eight months to build a cohesive team of people who had little in common but our shared mission. With a 1-year-old baby in tow, I crisscrossed the state for seven months.
Our Commission held 34 public hearings and pored over tens of thousands of written testimonies — letters, emails, reports, computer-generated and hand-drawn maps. The public had never had a chance to weigh in about their districts before, and boy did we get an earful about the districts of the past.
In accordance with the voters’ intentions, deliberations and decisions on boundaries were made in public, streamed live with full transcripts. We followed the voter-approved criteria now embedded in our state’s constitution, in order of priority:
- Create districts of equal population to ensure “one person, one vote.”
- Comply with the the Voting Rights Act, ensuring minority communities may also elect representatives of their choice.
- Make geographically contiguous districts; the different parts of a district have to connect.
- Respect city, county, neighborhood, and community of interest boundaries, and their divisions.
- Where possible, draw compact districts.
- Where practical, nest Assembly districts inside of Senate districts, and Senate districts inside of Board of Equalization districts.
- Do not favor or discriminate against an incumbent, candidate, or political party.
All the politicians in Sacramento wanted us to fail. The media attacked our every move. But we drew the 177 district maps and reports, integrating public testimony with Census data and voting rights law. We approved and certified the maps across party lines: Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters like me…on time and under budget.
I don’t kid myself that our work was perfect, that we couldn’t have used better data, more time, or extra resources. But now, as my term just closed, I can celebrate that that our maps broke new ground: they reflect California in a way previous maps never did. They withstood challenges in the courts and on the ballot, prevailing each time for the process we used and the product it resulted in.
As I’ve traveled California in recent years, I hear stories about homegrown leaders who’ve emerged and communities who finally have a voice with their elected officials. Around the country our Commission’s work has become a rallying cry to challenge and reimagine how districts get drawn, in service of a healthy democracy.
To the first eight incoming Redistricting Commissioners getting trained up in Sacramento this week, and the six more to be chosen: I wish you all the best. You’ll be able to draw on our Commission’s templates, and you’ve got more time to get the job done. But the Census data will come late, and it may not paint a full picture of who we are as California. Mid-pandemic you’ll have to build a virtual team with limitations on if and how to meet or travel. The political backdrop you face is more polarized, and questions around power, race, and California’s economy loom larger than ever.
Fellow Californians: Let’s cheer the Commission on, watchdog them like hell and help them draw the next decade’s maps. That’s truly democracy at work!
Editor’s Note: Connie Malloy is a Pasadena resident who served on California’s inaugural Citizens Redistricting Commission from 2010 to 2020. She leads a charitable family foundation and serves on the board of Southern California Grantmakers.