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Interview: Redistricting Commissioner Defends Process; Explains Fremont, Santa Cruz, Central Valley Quandaries

| July 13, 2011
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The California Redistricting Commission caused a bit of a stir earlier this week when it did not release its second draft of the legislative district maps it has been charged with drawing.

From the LA Times:

“The process is not transparent at all right now,” said Tony Quinn, who was an advisor to Republicans in past redistricting efforts. “The public can’t provide input if it doesn’t see the maps.”

An activist group called California Friends of the African American Caucus decried the commission’s vote as its “latest shenanigans” and an “egregious decision to perform their public charge without public scrutiny.” The group already was upset by proposed boundaries that would dilute the number of black districts, particularly in the Greater Los Angeles area.

The first maps also drew opposition from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Its members complained that the first proposals did not increase the number of Latino-majority districts even though that ethnic group represents the bulk of population growth.

The commission was created as an antidote to the notion that creating legislative districts has traditionally functioned as a means of protecting partisan interests, by investing politicians with the ability to lump together different populations that may share no other commonality than voting tendencies helpful to incumbents and one political party or another.

So this process has been taken out of the hands of the political professionals and placed in those of some civic-minded folks who applied for the job, went through an extensive vetting process, and finally were chosen (eight of them, anyway) by lottery.

Last month, the commission released its first draft of the new maps, triggering an initial round of complaints by various constituencies who do not want their political power diluted.

In an interview with KQED’s Cy Musiker this week, Vince Barabba, one of 14 commissioners, answered the criticism that is being levied at the commission, and addressed some of the complaints lodged by Bay Area groups upon the release of the first round of maps. In the process, he also explained some of the constraints commissioners are working under when it comes to lumping together “communities of interest,” not the least of which is the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits certain reapportionment strategies that otherwise might be considered.

Listening to the interview, the process sounds a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube — get one side nice and squared away, only to see another completely disrupted.

Listen below; an edited transcript appears after each audio clip.

Vince Barraba on why the commission didn’t release the 2nd draft of maps, and challenges in the task at hand

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Why the decision to not publish these interim maps?

We thought we would be in a position for the second draft, where we’d be fairly comfortable that we’d have it exactly as it should end up. As it ended up, we weren’t comfortable with the lines we were lokng at and the kind of issues that were being surfaced. A lot of this is caused by four counties we have that fall into the Voting Rights Act.

Which counties are those?

Monterey, Merced, Yolo, and Kings.

Why are those more complicated?

There’ an example in Santa Cruz County. A county that is in the voting rights act, cannot have any minority population retrogressed. In the case of the district that we drew that included Monetrrey and Santa Cruz county, the Latino population went from 46 to almost 44.5 percent. Our counsel suggested to us that if we did that, it would be refused by the justice dept because we retrogressed the Latino population.

In other words by making them a smaller percentage of the voting population in that districft, you are retrogressing them, and that’s not acceptable under the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

Correct. You step back and you ask yourself what’s the chances of Latinos’ ability to affect an election, between 46 and and 44.5 percent, you have to wonder how you’d go about calculating that. But the law’s the law and we’ll follow the law.

That caused us to split the city of Santa Cruz, and move over into Santa Clara county and pick up the city of Gilroy. Becauise Gilroy had a larger Latino population than that portion of Santa Cruz. You can only imagine how the people in the city of Santa Cruz feel. Why would you split us, when there’s no reason to? Other than the fact that we needed to get the to get the population characteristics correct. That’s the complexity that gets into this process.

One reason that the Citizens Redistricting Commission was created by voters was to avoid the kind of gerrymandering that politicians did in order to improve their chances of re-election, and also to build up the power of their own parties. That often created some odd looking districts. But you’re having just as much difficulty as the politicans have…

Gerrymandering came out of the ability of a former New Hampshrire official who drew a very inetresting looking district. But that was for pure political purposes. If you look at the constitution that were’ operating under given passage of Propositions 11 and 20, the first priority is that we’ll meet the constitutional mandate of equal population, the second is that we’ll meet the Voting Rights Act requirements, and then down the list is communities of interest.

We’re not gerrymandering to the preference of a political party or individual. We’re following what the law says is required. We don’t go out of our way for a particular ethnic group unless it’s a community of interest because they get together and they have events and they’re socially engaged. And in the case of a Voting Rights Act county, we don’t have a choice, we’re following the law. I don’t think that falls into the same category as some of these districts that were drawn for truly partisan purposes.

On complaints by Fremont’s Indian-American population and the large Northern California district proposed

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In Fremont, Indian Americans are complaining that you’ve divided the city in half and that may dilute their voting power. How do you respond to those complaints?

That’s a good example that we’re not gerrymandering purely for the sake of any racial preference.

I think we’ve taken care of them to their interest on the senate level and it might have also be worked out in the assembly, we haven’t finished things.

But in the congressional we had a more difficult time because of some of these things that were happening in Merced and in Monterey counties, and we have to give equal populations in other areas as well. We tried very, very hard to meet their requirements, but it looks like it’s not going to be possible for the congressional district.

There are also complaints that you created awkward districts in the Central Valley for state representatives, including one district that runs from East Sacramento to the Oregon border, not only creating a great deal of difficulty for anyone who’s going to represent that district in terms of traveling around, but also perhaps uniting the interests of people who are very different from each other.

Now you’re into the population problem. That’s a very sparsely populated area in the northern part of our state, and it takes many, many counties to add up to the 900,000 people that make up a senate district. The testimony we heard is that they don’t want to go east-west, they want to go north-south and follow the transportation corridors. Well if you’re going to add up to 900,000 people its’ going to bring you pretty far down south.

On criticism that the committee is not transparent enough

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You’re also being criticized for going dark in the terms of one critic, for not releasing these interim maps and for finishing the drawing of the maps without public input. How do you address that?

Let’s take the term going dark. Normally that would mean people go into a closed room and not let anyone see what they’re doing. We go into a conference area and there is a TV camera recording live everything we say and do. I wouldn’t classify that as going dark.

That includes the meetings you’ll be having in the next few weeks?

Yes. And everything we do is recorded and we live stream it. So I have a hard time with the term going dark.

Also you don’t have to have a public meeting to have public input, at least in the 21st century. We’re getting emails and written reports continuously and we read them all and pay attention to them. So the only thing that’s different is that instead of publishing a set of maps on a certain date, we’re saying we’re going to keep working through, and rather than spending a lot of time on publishing maps that may or may not be changed, we’re going to just keep working on improving the maps until were’ comfortable that we have them right.

And by the way, I talked to Vince Barabba, who is from Capitola, and fellow commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, from Alameda, back in March, probably before their antacid bills went through the roof. Check out the video here.

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