Redistricting commission unlikely to achieve its goal

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I am among the more than 1.8 million Californians who, because they arrived in the state after 2015, are ineligible to apply to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission — a commission that supposedly aims to give all Californians a chance to shape the state’s political landscape by drawing the state’s political districts every decade following the census. Independent, diverse redistricting commissions are meant to reduce gerrymandering, the practice of skewing political boundaries to advance partisan aims. Yet, arbitrary and adverse application requirements have denied millions the chance to participate in this meaningful democratic exercise. As a result, the commission is unsurprisingly short of the number of applicants it would like to see as evidenced by the commission twice extending its application deadline.

Each of the state’s requirements for applicants goes against the commission’s futile attempt to be representative. Applicants must fit into a narrow, already unrepresentative pool of Californians who have:

  • Been registered to vote since 2015, AND
  • Maintained that registration with only one political identity, such as a particular party or no party preference, AND
  • Voted in two of the last three statewide elections

Additionally, applicants must not have meaningfully participated in the state’s democracy by, for example, being an employee of a political party. In other words, California wants to select a diverse pool of applicants from a largely homogeneous population; for example, though white people make up just 42% of the state’s adult population, they account for nearly 60% of the state’s likely voters. 

What’s the rationale behind these arbitrary and adverse application requirements? Do the 1.8 million people who have moved here since 2015 have any less of a stake in the state’s democracy than those who got here in 2014? I think not. After all, more so than long-term Californians, people who moved to the state have made a conscious decision to uproot themselves and make the state their home. So, if anything, new residents may have more of a stake in the state’s political future.

To play devil’s advocate, some may say that without this requirement, folks may move to California solely to jump on the commission and be unfaithful representatives of the people. But the likelihood of such a carpetbagger actually landing on the commission seems low, given the other application requirements such as letters of recommendation that attest to one’s involvement in the state. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter who has a greater stake. The fact is that all residents have a stake in our state’s politics — even if they got here after 2015. 

The requirement to have maintained a specific political identity cuts across the stated goals of the commission and mirrors the unimportant 2015 requirement that inadequately sorted through candidates. Perhaps the commission fears that residents will switch their political affiliations merely to fit within one of the commission seats designated for a specific party. This fear is misplaced. Again, even if someone did switch their party with the intent of gaming the system to secure a party-specific seat, other application requirements will filter these scammers out. The commission should not punish people for having the mental flexibility required to change their party affiliation, especially given these turbulent political times in which parties seem increasingly unrepresentative of typical voters. 

In the same way, principled voters need not apply. Californians who have recently awoken to their civic potential should stay on the sidelines, according to the commission. By limiting qualified applicants to those who have voted in two of the last three statewide elections, the commission is perpetuating a status quo that we know is unrepresentative of the state at large. The commission could upend this status quo by lowering barriers and recognizing that a voting record is far from a perfect proxy for civic engagement. 

In addition to putting a minimum requirement for the right amount of political participation, the commission has also created a ceiling that likewise limits the commission’s potential to be representative. Particularly engaged residents, those who have run for office or had particularly close ties to political organizations, are unable to apply. The commission is rightfully concerned that such applicants may have conflicts of interest. But these potential conflicts should not be grounds for dismissal; instead, they should be investigated and weighed through the application process. 

I moved to California in 2016. I registered the day I arrived. I have voted in every election since. I changed my political affiliation in 2018. Somehow, these facts make me a poor fit for shaping the state’s political future. It’s no wonder the commission will fall short of its aims.

Kevin Frazier is a Berkeley Law student studying environmental and constitutional law.