Why the public should care about ‘redistricting’
Redistricting, the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing district lines based on U.S. Census data, affects all residents of the United States, but its importance eludes many.
Redistricting aims to prevent gerrymandering—the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one party or class–in all forms, whether based on “political, racial, incumbent, or amenity” interests, said veteran demographer Paul Mitchell.
Pomona College political science assistant professor Sara Sadhwani and LEAP president and CEO Linda Akutagawa serve on the California Redistricting Commission. INQUIRER/CM Querol Moreno
Redistricting is a component of interrelated processes transpiring every 10 years as a provision of the U.S. Constitution.
The census determines distribution of US House seats or “apportionment,” requiring each seat is distributed or apportioned (or reapportioned) based proportionally on the state population.
Redistricting follows in the states, where lines are drawn with equal populations for each House district.
Mitchell listed lower rate of growth than the rest of the country resulting in the loss of a congressional district, increased Latino and Asian populations, and the dispersion of Blacks among challenges and changes in California demographics impacting the state remap.
County supervisorial and city redistricting are conducted by local redistricting commissions.
“Local redistricting commissions are more receptive to concerns about minority representation, communities of interest, language access and outreach to community – based organizations,” Mitchell noted a distinguishing factor in local remapping: “Under the Federal Voting Rights Act, areas with 50% majority minority can be drawn with race as a factor.”
“When divided into multiple districts they cannot get what they need – it could be housing…health care…education…jobs. When you divide their community, you ruin their political voice,” he summed up the cost of not paying attention to the process.
While the federal count rolled out like a media hurricane last year, 2020 redistricting ensued with little notice, leaving few aware of ongoing public hearings conducted by the State Redistricting Commission until Dec. 22. By then, information collected will determine if current district lines will be preserved or redrawn. The final maps are due on the desk of the Secretary of State on Dec. 27.
No one would know about the process in progress unless they log on to specific websites, particularly those of their elected officials, who were the traditional managers of redistricting until this century.
For this reason, those concerned about the outcome of the process joined voices recently to call attention to how redistricting builds or breaks community empowerment. Members of special media and media of color got the big picture and the stakes at hand for California, during an Ethnic Media Service briefing.
Primary presenter Mitchell said it is important that people with “expertise and community experience rather than political interest” be put in charge of redistricting.
A State Redistricting Commission was convened, he said, among other tasks to avert manipulation favoring a party or a class – also known as “gerrymandering.” Its members applied and were screened for independence and awareness of issues. Five are Democrats, five Republicans, and four unaffiliated with either parties.
Two of 14 members of the current State Redistricting Commission attended the EMS briefing to send a resounding message: Representation matters.
“Redistricting is an esoteric idea, it’s not what moms sit around talking about on a regular basis, not the conversation you have at the water cooler or over coffee,” said Sara Sadhwani, state commission chair.
The assistant political science professor at Pomona College said she was motivated to apply to the commission to, “at the very minimum….diversify the pool of candidates,” after reading an LA Times report on the “predominantly white and male” applicants for the then-upcoming countrywide activity.
“It’s such a fundamental component to ensuring responsive representation,” the social justice activist and mother of three reminded the media of their responsibility to spread the word.
She shared her earlier research finding “politicians who really don’t listen too much” to their constituents or “are self-interested for their own betterment, and yet we know communities in the ground have their needs.”
The Commission is in the midst of “visualizations” for a responsive state based on testimony from “communities of interest,” Sadhwani bared, and matching it with the current census data.
CA.gov defines “communities of interest as “a contiguous population that shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation.”
Among Fil-Ams, example of shared interest would the health care profession or faith communities, often boasting high concentrations of Fil-Am presence. Relationships with politicians or political parties are not included as communities of interest.
“One of the key pieces in redrawing the lines for the state is equal population,” she pointed to target numbers for the U.S. Congress districts as well as the State Assembly, State Senate and Board of Equalization.
“We’re in a phase of assessing what is possible to be responsible to communities of interest, and upholding our obligations to historically excluded communities under the Voting Rights Act,” Sadhwani concluded.
Everyone is qualified
Linda Akutagawa is a 30-year veteran of community organizing, but she had misgivings about her qualifications for the commission, something she said many Asian and Pacific Islanders may be able to relate to as a cultural trait.
Akutagawa said she too “had gotten word that perhaps there was less than a diverse pool” of applicants for the process, and wanted to make a difference.
“To be honest it was a last-minute decision,” Akutagawa shared that she had turned in her application on the final day of submission still wondering, “Who am I to think I can actually serve on this commission.” But the head of national nonprofit Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics ultimately overcame her apprehension as she recognized an opportunity to practice what she preaches.
“I’ve been telling community members across multiple sectors (that) we need more leaders who can step up, speak out and represent diverse voices and perspectives,” says Akutagawa, whose nonprofit’s mission is to attain “full participation and equality for APIs through leadership, empowerment, and policy.”
As redistricting nears conclusion after nearly two years, Akutagawa’s experience allows her to declare “any Californian should feel they are more than capable or more than qualified to participate in this process.”
She echoed a friend’s congratulatory message for landing one of the “most underappreciated jobs but also one of the most important jobs out there.”
“We are truly a citizens’ commission. Majority of us are not professional politicians though we care about and are involved in the community.”
The engagement of the two women of color from the community and academic sectors depicts the de-politicization of the process California voters passed in ballot measures over 11 years ago. In 2008, Prop 11 authorized the California State Auditor in the Voters First Act to regulate a nonpartisan redistricting commission covering the state legislature; Prop 20 expanded the effort to the congressional districts.