For too long, the joys of disenfranchising minorities and gerrymandering a district into irrelevancy have been selfishly hoarded by state legislatures. But in California, a group of 14 ordinary citizens will get the opportunity to draw the lines themselves, as members of California’s first Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The Citizens Redistricting Commission was created as a result of California’s citizen initiative process. California Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization for “open and accountable government”, proposed an amendment to the California Constitution that would take the task of redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and put it directly in the hands of the people. That proposed amendment became Proposition 11, also known as the Voter First Initiative, and was voted on by the people of California in the 2008 general election. Despite receiving support from a number of prominent figures, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg, Prop 11 barely passed, receiving less than 51% of the vote.
The logic behind a Citizens Redistricting Commission is almost inescapable. He who draws the districts controls the legislature, and aren’t the people supposed to control the legislature? Incumbency rates are absurdly high (Not a single seat in the California legislature has changed hands in the last two elections) and why shouldn’t they be, considering redistricting gives incumbents the opportunity to choose their voters? Happen to have a Democrat in office during a redistricting year and you can look forward to having a Democrat in office for the foreseeable future. A non-partisan Commission (well, sorta, more on the party makeup of the Commission later) would theoretically be able to eliminate some of the advantages of incumbency, shaking up the legislature and creating districts that legislators will actually have to campaign in to win.
Opponents of the Citizens Redistricting Commission argue that the members of the Commission will be just puppets of politicians operating from behind the scenes. Even assuming that the Commission acts completely independently of the legislature and other political entities, there is no guarantee that they will act in the best interests of the people. The members of the Commission are chosen partially by the state auditors board, partially by random chance, and partially by other members of the Commission (I’ll explain later, it will make sense, I promise). At no point do the people of California have any say in the makeup of the Commission.
The state legislators,on the other hand, do have to face reelection and therefore must answer to the people. Since the people choose the legislature and the legislature makes the districts, that means the people technically have some control over the districting process. Of course, since the legislators drew the districts in the first place, they get to choose which people they have to answer to. So, winning reelection doesn’t prove that the legislator created a district that his constituents like, it could just mean that the legislator is really good at gerrymandering. The result is an endless cycle of disenfranchisement. The legislators get reelected because they draw districts that ensure their victory in the next election, then they point to their election victory as proof that they should get to draw the districts, then they redistrict to ensure their reelection, and so on until the end of the world. Or a Citizens Redistricting Commission is formed. Whichever comes first.
Unfortunately, if you thought that the Redistricting Commission sounded like your dream job, you are out of luck. The deadline passed on February 16th, and even if you managed to sneak in an application before the deadline, you face some stiff competition. Over 31,000 Californians applied to serve on the 14 person commission. Most commentators seem to interpret this as an indication of citizen outrage at the political process, but I think its just a sign of how bad the California job market is. Members of the Citizens Commission will make $300 dollars per day and have an unlimited budget for travel expenses and office staff. With those perks, the number of applications should be no surprise.
The California auditor’s office has the uneviable task of sorting through those 31,000 applications and narrowing it down to 60 qualified candidates. Then the majority and minority leaders of the state House and Senate have the power to veto six candidates each. The names of the remaining applicants will be sorted according to party affiliation and then the state auditor will randomly select three Democrats, three Republicans, and two Independents (or people affiliated with third parties) to serve as the first eight members of the committee. Finally, those eight will select six other members, resulting in a final tally of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four others.
Hopefully, the complexity of the selection process will help ensure that only the most qualified candidates get a spot on the Commission. Those members will no doubt earn their $300 dollar a day pay, as the eyes of the nation will be on them and California’s unique experiment in redistricting.
Anthony Balady is Editor in Chief of State of Elections and a student at William & Mary Law School.