LOS ANGELES—California has started a new experiment that will affect who represents you in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Until now, the state Legislature has had the power to redraw the boundaries of state and congressional districts, a process known as redistricting. Because of recently approved ballot propositions, the Legislature’s redistricting authority has been delegated to a 14-member commission made up of California voters. The creation of the new commission presents the public with a golden opportunity to get involved in how the lines are drawn.
The commission’s job is to replace existing Assembly, state Senate, Board of Equalization and Congressional districts with new districts based on 2010 Census data. Over the last decade, some areas of the state, such as the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, have experienced significant population growth, while other areas have had stagnant growth or population losses. The commission’s task is to account for these changes and create new districts containing roughly the same number of people as other districts of the same kind. Although partisan considerations often dominate how redistricting is carried out, the population equality requirement is the reason why redistricting happens in the first place.
District boundaries drawn in the past have fragmented communities of color, including Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. For example, in the 2001 redistricting, the San Jose neighborhood of Berryessa was split among four state Assembly districts, even though over half of Berryessa’s population is AAPI, sharing common interests and needs. When communities are divided, their ability to appeal to their elected representatives to address their needs is diminished.
By law, the commission must hold two sets of public hearings. These hearings are an opportunity for the public to educate the commission on how different communities believe the commission should draw the electoral maps. The first set of hearings is to receive input before any maps are drawn and the second set is to receive feedback following the drawing of the commission’s proposed maps.
Public input is important to the commission’s ability to keep together “communities of interest,” one of the factors the commission must consider. A community of interest is a population that shares common social and economic interests that should be kept together in order that the population’s interests are fairly and effectively represented. If divided, the community’s representation would be ineffective because it would be required to appeal to two or more elected officials, as in the case of Berryessa. Many different types of communities can make up a community of interest, such as an immigrant community with shared language-access needs, a low-income neighborhood with specific educational needs, or a geographic area where many of the residents work in the same industry.
Communities of interest are not generally labeled on maps. That’s why it is crucial that local community members come forward to educate the commission. Without public input, the commission is unlikely to know whether a specific community of interest exists and is even more unlikely to know the geographic parameters of the community of interest.
If you are interested in ensuring that the commission keeps together AAPI communities of interest, there’s a simple way to get involved. The Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting (CAPAFR), anchored by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, is holding meetings throughout California to focus on AAPI communities of interest. CAPAFR’s goal is to submit proposals that show the commission how AAPI communities of interest can be best kept together, while also respecting other communities of interest. To see a calendar of CAPAFR meetings or to learn more about redistricting in general, please visit www.capafr.org.
When will we know how this new redistricting experiment turns out? August 15, 2011, which is the commission’s deadline to adopt final redistricting plans. Before that deadline approaches, the commission must hear from the public. If the public does not come forward, communities could get divided in the redistricting process.
Eugene Lee is the voting rights project director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a member of Asian Center of Advancing Justice. (www.apalc.org). He directs work on voter protection, Voting Rights Act compliance, and ballot access policy and is currently working to strengthen the voice of AAPI communities during the 2011 redistricting process.
Deanna Kitamura is the statewide redistricting manager at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a member of Asian Center of Advancing Justice. She works with community partners to ensure that AAPI communities in California are engaged in the redistricting process.