Opinion: California needs diverse group to draw redistricting maps

The Mercury News | August 6, 2019

The 2020 Census has been getting a lot of attention lately, but it is only part of the story of how immigrant communities, communities of color and other underrepresented groups in California can build long-term political power for the next 10 years.

Census data is used to make a number of important decisions, such as how to distribute federal dollars that fund crucial infrastructure and services such as schools, libraries, Section 8 and food stamps. Census data also determine how many seats our state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The less discussed but equally consequential effect of census is redistricting.

In 2021 and 2022, census data will be used to redraw political district maps, from the local school board all the way to federal Congressional districts. These maps determine who represents us at all levels of government and, ultimately, whether communities who have traditionally been ignored have a voice when advocating to their representatives or voting in future elections. That means the people who draw these maps have enormous power. They can keep marginalized or under-resourced communities together to speak with a unified voice. But they can also divide them so they have less influence and voting power.

Thanks to the 2008 Voters FIRST Act, California became the first state in the nation to place this responsibility directly in the hands of an independent body, rather than a government agency or elected officials. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC), made up of 14 citizens, draws district maps for some of California’s highest elected offices: House of Representatives, state Senate, state Assembly and state Board of Equalization. And the law mandates their protecting communities of color under the federal Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

Active outreach in 2010 led to a CRC with diverse membership that was open to incorporating feedback from community members and civil rights groups. This ultimately led to the adoption of a final map that protected the voting power of communities of color. Right now, the new CRC is at risk of not looking anything like our state: Currently, 60% of CRC applicants are male and 68% are white.

As Angelo Ancheta, current CRC commission member, has stated: “Diversity on the CRC is absolutely critical, particularly because it is charged with safeguarding the rights of minority voters under the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.”

In order for our future political districts to reflect the communities they encompass, the CRC must be made up of individuals of different races, gender identities, professions and life experiences, from different parts of California.

The CRC application uses a very simple and quick first stage (mainly designed to see if applicants are disqualified by conflict-of-interest criteria) and then a lengthier second stage. The deadline for the first phase of the application process has been extended to Aug. 19. We must spread the word about this opportunity through our schools, community centers, churches and other networks. Commissioners get paid at least $300/day for a full day worked, but even more important, they have the opportunity to lay the political foundation for our communities for the next decade.

The more diverse this body is, the more likely it will consider and listen to the perspectives of  historically disempowered communities in California and to draw district lines that give our state’s communities of color a seat at the table. Let’s change the face of who decides our political future.

Aarti Kohli is the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus. Nicole Wong is the community advocate for voting rights for the Asian Law Caucus. 

View Original Publication: The Mercury News