Nearly one-third of California voters will be underrepresented when the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission is selected at the end of next year – and it won’t just be political independents who will be underrepresented. It will also be voters younger than 35, Latinos, Asians, blacks and, to a lesser degree, men.
This problem can be fixed, and there’s still time to do it.
Since legislative and congressional districts are redrawn only once a decade, a review of how California does it is in order. In 2008, voters established a nonpartisan citizens commission to take over a job that had always belonged to the Legislature. It proved to be a smashingly successful political reform. The process was transparent, the commissioners were conscientious and the system created logical districts, disregarding political considerations.
Because of the commission’s work, voters in California have been choosing their elected representatives since 2012 — instead of the other way around.
Only one election cycle remains with those districts in place. After 2020, the process will have to be done again to reflect population changes. Should we tinker with a successful process? The answer is yes, for several reasons.
The process of selecting a new commission will begin next year. The law says the 14 commissioners should consist of five members from the party with the most registered voters, five from the party with the second-highest number of registered voters and four who are not from either of the top two parties.
This allocation made sense in 2008. At the time, 44 percent of state voters were Democrats, 31 percent Republicans and 24 percent were either independent or registered with another party, such as Green or Libertarian.
Things have changed dramatically since then. Today, 43 percent are Democrats, 28 percent are independents (“no party preference”) and 24 percent are Republicans. When you add those registered with another party to the independents, that group is substantially larger than Republicans — 33 percent to 24 percent.
That second-largest group — independents, plus those registered with smaller parties — should get five seats on the commission this time around. Only four seats should go to Republicans.A It would take only a simple fix to restate the makeup of the commission: Award five seats to each of the two largest groups, and four to the smallest.
Data from surveys conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California show that independents are twice as likely as Republicans to be under age 35, twice as likely to be either Latino, Asian or black, and slightly more likely to be men. To award a disproportionate share of commission seats to Republicans would likely result in those groups being underrepresented.
The interests of the political minority would remain protected. The current law empowers the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Assembly and Senate to each strike two names from the pool of finalists from each politically-divided group of nominees. Republican leaders should retain that right.
There’s little doubt that Republican leaders would strongly oppose changing the commission’s makeup. But this is a case in which Democrats in the Legislature could use their two-thirds majority to assert the interests of independents. They could do this by placing a constitutional amendment to make the change on the March 2020 ballot.
We call it the Citizens Redistricting Commission because it’s designed to reflect the judgment of California citizens. It can’t accurately do that unless all California citizens are fairly represented.