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