I leaped at the opportunity to serve on California’s first independent citizen redistricting commission, and I wasn’t alone. Some 36,000 other reform-minded citizens also applied.
The commission’s mandate was to take the drawing of electoral districts out of the hands of politicians, who had a vested interest in the process, and put it into the hands of ordinary Californians, with input from concerned citizens throughout the state. The idea was that instead of a process designed to ensure “safe seats” for incumbents and discipline legislators who don’t toe the party line, redistricting would become a tool for creating truly representative voting districts.
The commission, by law, was set up to reflect the state’s diversity. Of the 14 commissioners, five were to be Democrats, five Republicans, and four not of either major party. Every important decision would require a “supermajority” of at least three Democrats, three Republicans and three others.
After my selection, I was both excited but apprehensive: In this time of increasing partisan rancor, would 14 ordinary citizens really be able to reach across the aisle and take a fair approach to an inherently political process?
Some pundits predicted we would not get out of the starting gate. We were a startup, and the strangest oxymoron — a startup government agency as underfunded as any Silicon Valley startup, but subject to all the rules and regulations of state government bureaucracy. And rather than being led by a cohesive team of founders, we were 14 strangers united only by a desire for good government.
But the framers of the initiative were smart. Not only did they set up a meticulous commissioner selection process, they also ranked in order the criteria we were to consider in drawing boundaries, including, at the top of the list, the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of equal population among like legislative districts and compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act. Lower-ranking criteria included factors such as geographic contiguity; integrity of counties, cities, neighborhoods and local communities of interest; compactness; and nesting — the placement, where possible, of two smaller Assembly districts within the exact boundaries of one larger state Senate district.
The Voters First Act was as much about civic engagement as it was about fair redistricting; otherwise, it might well have been done by a computer program. To better understand how Californians defined their communities, we conducted 34 public hearings across the state. We accepted input in person, by phone and via mail, fax and email. Transparency was critical. Every meeting was public, live-streamed on our website and transcribed.
And Californians responded. More than 3,000 people testified at hearings or spoke during public meetings. We received more than 20,000 written comments, including detailed map proposals.
When we began the work of drawing boundaries, we did not start with existing districts and simply tweak them based on demographic shifts. After all, why start with gerrymandered districts? Instead, we directed our line-drawing consultants, Q2 Data & Research, to create visualizations of the most compelling proposals from the public that were consistent with the legal criteria, using software loaded with the latest census data. We did this in every region of the state and then reconciled the differences, making important and difficult choices consistent with the law, as we merged them into statewide plans.
With the help of staff attorneys, we labored to understand the constitutional rules and the complexities of the Voting Rights Act. California, for example, has four counties subject to Section 5 of the act, which requires meeting minimum benchmarks for protected minorities in counties with a history of discrimination. Compliance in those counties created some virtually immovable puzzle pieces, which had ripple effects on other districts. We also worked hard to ensure compliance with Section 2 of the act, which protects minorities against vote dilution.
It’s a complex process. Sometimes a preferred option in one region resulted in unacceptable consequences for another. Sometimes we heard equally strong but conflicting testimony from adjacent or overlapping communities. It was occasionally unavoidable to split communities, but we tried when possible to repair splits that occurred in smaller Assembly districts when we created larger Senate districts. We did our best to nest two Assembly districts in each Senate district, but there were times when we deferred to the more important mandates of minimizing splits of counties, cities, neighborhoods and local communities of interest.
When we didn’t get it quite right in our first draft maps, we heard about it from the public. We abandoned bringing out a second round of maps in favor of a more interactive process that allowed us to refine lines down to the street level.
In the end, Californians spoke up for their communities, and we commissioners listened, balanced disparate needs and followed the law. While outsiders were astonished at our collegiality, I was not surprised that in the end we achieved consensus around the vast majority of our decisions. Our commitment to a fair process trumped partisan allegiances.
Predictably, some people aren’t happy with our final decisions. Politicians and political parties that no longer have the same safe districts wish we’d drawn different lines. But there are procedures for dissenters to voice their concerns at the ballot box or in the courts.
Meanwhile, I’m proud that we were able to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and draw 177 districts for the state Assembly and Senate, Board of Equalization and Congress on time and under budget.
Cynthia Dai is a Democratic commissioner on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and CEO of a strategic consulting firm based in San Francisco.