In a windowless room in an angular state office one block from the Capitol, 14 people are busy mapping California’s political future.
Selected from more than 30,000 applicants, their ranks include a seminar professor, a civil engineer, and an investigator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff. The youngest, 30, was in high school when California voters created their positions on the Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The panel and its work are a legacy of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promoted Proposition 11 to shake up Sacramento and make the California elections more competitive by denying lawmakers the ability to determine their own political districts, as they have done for decades had.
Handing over the process to private individuals has not made the Democrats less dominant in the state; the near collapse of the Republican Party made sure of that. But it certainly made the line drawing more transparent.
There are no smoky back rooms. The procedures, which are held in a barebone workroom of the state rehabilitation ministry, are not only smoke-free, but are streamed live and posted online for the whole world.
It is extremely important work that very few people care about.
The decisions made in this borrowed boardroom over the next few months will shape not only the fate of hundreds of political candidates over the next decade, but the lives of the millions of Californians they represent.
A refresher, every 10 years the state’s political boundaries are redrawn to accommodate population changes reflected in the US census. The big news this time around is that California has lost one of its 53 seats in Congress for the first time in history.
But as Fredy Ceja, the commission’s spokesman, put it: “It’s not that easy to just clear a district and say our job is done.”
In total, the commissioners will create 176 maps and establish district boundaries for the now 52 members of Congress, 120 state lawmakers, and four members of the Compensation Committee that oversees tax collection. The completion date is December 27th.
The commission consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four non-party members. They were selected through an extensive process – long and detailed questionnaires, several essays, face-to-face interviews – under the supervision of the non-partisan state auditor.
The criteria for the creation of political maps were laid down in the 2008 vote on the establishment of the Commission. Among them, the districts should: have an equal population; be geographically compact – sorry, no would-be Picasso drawings; comply with voting rights law to ensure that the power of minority groups is not diluted; and respect the boundaries of cities, neighborhoods and the like as much as possible.
The meetings, which typically last around eight hours, are for political junkies and cartographers, Catnip – “It looks like there’s a little section of Garden Grove nearby where the 5 intersects the 405 …” – but an almost superhuman attention span is required for more typical viewers.
The commission received a lot of input in the months leading up to the line drawing launch this week: more than 3,200 emails, letters and public comments on Zoom. (There is still time to weigh up via the Commission’s website.)
The people of the San Fernando Valley don’t want their policies to spill over into Ventura County. The residents of Long Beach, which is part of Los Angeles County, don’t want to be lumped together with neighboring Orange County. And is it possible to add Stanton to this borough that Garden Grove belongs to?
There was also, as CalMatters noted, some obvious, if barely disguised, political lobbying. Among those who shared their thoughts – only as concerned citizens, of course – were a San Diego County candidate for Congress, the chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, and the chairman of the Leisure World Republican Club.
At least they made their pitches public.
Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco nor Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy from Bakersfield, who may have once played a key role in the process, was heard. But her thoughts, said Commission spokesman Ceja, are welcomed and weighted on an equal footing with those of everyone else.
For at least one inspector, the experience was eye-opening, exciting and exhausting. (Members are paid $ 378 a day for commission-related work, but they are paid no salary. For many, that practically equates to two jobs.)
Isra Ahmad, the newest member of the panel, is a Santa Clara County researcher who applied because she wanted to “contribute to society on a larger scale.”
She learned a lot about political division and partisan polarization, but not from the commissioners, who got along well despite their different inclinations. It is impossible to make everyone happy, she realized, and her goal is “to make things as fair as possible”.
At 30, Isra Ahmad is the youngest member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)
Ahman worked from home and kept a copy of the oath she had sworn as Commissioner – including pledges to “show sincere faith and allegiance to the constitutions of the United States and the State of California” – in her remote office as a memento of her duty and inspiration during the many hours she has done.
Ahman recently moved back in with her parents to escape the exorbitant rent she paid alone. Since there is no home office, the oath is now hanging on her bedroom wall.