In California, when we identify big problems, we try to solve them with big solutions. California voters looked at political gridlock and a lack of transparency in Sacramento, and voted for an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) to draw our congressional and legislative districts in a transparent, democratic and nonpartisan fashion.
The concept having been approved by voters through a ballot initiative, the state created and implemented a process to establish the CRC. Commissioners were chosen – ones who represented the diversity of our state – and they quickly began their work to ensure districts would be ready for the 2012 election cycle. “When the People Draw the Lines,” a report we commissioned in partnership with The James Irvine Foundation, is an independent analysis of the work of the Citizens Redistricting Commission – where it succeeded and where it could have used more support. The author, Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, also identifies steps necessary to ensure success for future redistricting commissions. The report was released June 12, 2013.
After reviewing “When the People Draw the Lines,” we were struck by several things:
The Power of Transparency: It makes sense that a strong, effective and transparent democracy is best served by legislative districts drawn by the people and not the politicians. Previously, Californians had to rely on redistricting done by the legislators, who obviously had a conflict of interest, and frequently drew district lines that protected themselves or their party. In contrast, with the new districts drawn by the CRC, we are seeing districts drawn in a process open to all and in which Californians could help define the nature of their communities.
The Support for Citizen-Led Efforts: The CRC was largely successful in its overall process, as well as in engaging the public, despite having had only eight months to draw 177 district lines while often lacking needed monetary and structural support. There certainly could have been improvements, but public sentiment, among those familiar with the commission, bears out that the CRC successfully achieved what it was asked to do.
The commission’s work was further validated by decisions of both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court. And by a huge margin, the voters rejected an attempt to repeal the Senate maps by referendum.
The Challenges Ahead: Most significantly, the report provides us with important recommendations for future commissions. The League understands that, to ensure the continued active and informed participation of citizens in California’s democracy, we must begin addressing obstacles that may damage the work of future citizens redistricting commissions before they even begin. A number of these obstacles have already been addressed. Additional efforts will be needed to help prepare for future commissions and to educate the public about their role in redistricting. We are looking forward to working with others to build on the findings in this report to promote greater civic engagement in the redistricting process next time.
In the meantime, the report is also available to other states and localities which wish to improve their own redistricting processes, and reform groups in several states have already begun studying the report and its recommendations.