Redistricting Panel: Glamorous, It Ain't

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KQED/John Myers

When an attorney suggested this morning that the men and women who will draw California's political maps could benefit from snuggling up some weekend with a copy of the state's open meetings law, you could feel the reality set in.

California's newly chosen citizen redistricting experts have got quite a task on their hands, one that officially began today.

Eight of the eventual 14 members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission took the oath of office this morning from state Auditor Elaine Howle, perhaps the simplest action they will take between now and next summer.

In that period of time, they'll have to draw 120 legislative districts, four state Board of Equalization districts, and (most likely) 53 congressional districts -- all the while being scrutinized and criticized by just about everyone who wants those maps to represent one thing or another.

The panel chose Republican Peter Yao, a city councilmember in Claremont, as its interim chairman and Democrat Cythnia Dai, a San Francisco high-tech consultant, as its interim vice-chair. Those positions will expire once the eight commissioners, who were picked at random, select six additional citizens for the panel by the end of December.

The process for picking commissioners, outlined by the language of 2008's Proposition 11 and added to by the meticulous Howle and her staff, was lengthy. Even this morning's selection of temporary commission leaders was complicated -- Yao and Dai had to receive at least five votes from the eight members, and those five votes had to be from two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent.

From here, it gets less specific but decidedly harder. In picking six more commissioners, the sitting citizen officials are given no major directives, other than picking peers that will help fill in any gaps in diversity that exist on the panel.

Prop 11 put it this way:

The six appointees shall be chosen to ensure the commission reflects this state's diversity, including, but not limited to, racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity. However, it is not intended that formulas or specific ratios be applied for this purpose. Applicants shall also be chosen based on relevant analytical skills and ability to be impartial.

And then there's the actual work. While commissioners can, and likely will, hold public meetings across the state this winter to consider how they should draw the new maps, they won't get the actual full set of Census data they need until April 1. And then, they'll only have until August 15 (per the language in this fall's Proposition 20) to finish all of the maps.

Today's unglamorous start to the process marked the culmination of an effort that began, in this incarnation, back in 2005 as government reform advocates negotiated with legislators over creating an independent redistricting process. Those negotiations eventually broke down and led the reform groups and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to appeal directly to the voters with an initiative.

"I would never have imagined that I could be sitting here and really seeing the first eight commissioners," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause and one of the authors of Proposition 11.

Still, Feng admits that there are few guarantees that independent redistricting will meet all of the lofty expectations placed on it by the political process. The most often repeated promise, made by Schwarzenegger numerous times in 2008, was that political maps drawn by citizens would produce significantly more competition in legislative and congressional races that now often seem like foregone conclusion come Election Day. That's not likely to be a promise the new commissioners can keep. Also problematic will be the promise to not divide "communities" when maps are drawn, a specific mandate in Prop 20 which also seems tough to pull off.

"I think a lot of people come to a concept like a citizen's redistricting commission with their own hopes and dreams," says Feng. "And so I'm not going to deny that people have put a lot of expectations into this commission."

Perhaps the only thing on which California's new experiment with independent redistricting can be counted to produce is transparency -- a process that's done in public hearings and not behind closed doors inside the Capitol. Many supporters say the importance of transparency can't be overstated, especially when it comes to restoring public trust.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said Yao was a city councilmember from Glendale, when he's actually an outgoing member of the Claremont City Council. --JM

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://www.camajorityreport.com Steven Maviglio

    What’s interesting that these commissioners are not accountable to the citizens of the state. They weren’t elected by anyone and report to no one. Even the State Auditor isn’t accountable to anyone. I guess that’s what self-appointed “good government” groups think is good government — zero accountability to voters, legislators, or the Governor.

  • mike

    What is known about the first batch of 8 commissioners? (Particularly the independents.) Anyone giving interviews? Any previous letters to the editor or other publicly available indications of what they think?

  • http://www.kqed.org/weblog/capitalnotes/blog.jsp John Myers

    The state Auditor has posted all information — applications, letters of recommendation, etc — on all applicants (those picked & not picked) online at https://application.wedrawthelines.ca.gov/applicants.

  • Bill Albert

    Reply to Steven Maviglio:
    You forgot a couple–”zero accountability” to interest groups & lobbyists as well.

  • george skelton

    Steve,the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t accountable to anyone either. It has a fairly good history. Neither were the state Supreme Court masters who did a pretty good job redistricting in 1992 and 1972.

  • BlueStater

    Maviglio–

    The problem with legislative redistricting is the conflict of interest in having legislators draw their own districts. This is not merely theoretical, the ridiculous spider-shaped districts we have currently are proof enough.

    Prop 11 is good government reform because it 1) eliminates (through an incredibly sophisticated candidate sifting system) any possibility of self-interest, and 2) it makes all their actions open to the public. The standards for redistricting are listed in the statute; any decision not based on those criteria could be challenged legally. Had the commission been “accountable” to elected officials, then there would be no way to ensure the maps would be fair and not politically motivated. (This is the same reason why federal judges are not elected.)

    Moreover, the claim that the Legislature was ever held “accountable” for how it drew districts is a clear canard. First, this is empirically false based on the maps. Second, there is not enough visibility on redistricting (or transparency on what individual Legislators wanted the maps to look like) for voters to know who to blame. Third, voters cannot undo the way the lines are drawn (they’re permanent for 10 yrs) so there’s no accountability in the sense of being able to undo the action, and since incumbents are re-elected 90%+ of the time there’s no claim that they can be punished through the electoral process.

    In essence, the voters stripping the Legislature of the right to draw districts was accountability in action. If legislators hadn’t so gleefully gerrymandered the state the commission would not have been necessary to begin with.

  • Gerry

    Just another politically motivated waste of money. Totally misrepresented as a “citizens” committee. There’s no-one on the board that doesn’t have political connections or represent a political minority. Why don’t we just draw lines in equal squares, where they make sense, and represent the political majority of those living in the areas? We could probably do that in about a week and save millions of dollars while representing the people and not the political money of the “parties”.