original article published April 2, 2021 by the Milpitas Beat
OK folks, hold on to your hats, because we’re about to dive into the deep end of the American Constitution. Many of you may have learned some of this back in the day, in your school’s Civics or U.S. History class. But before we get into definitions and numbers, let me just briefly explain why this is so important to American citizens right now.
When we talk about redistricting, we’re referring to the act of geographically dividing up a state into many pieces, with each piece, and the population residing therein, represented at the state and federal level by a politician of some sort. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ours is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people…,” and this fundamental notion was held near and dear by the forefathers of our democracy.
So, equal representation is vital for a fair and just system, and in fact is constitutionally mandated. But maintaining it is easier said than done, especially in a country that has grown to a population of over 330,000,000 people, according to the latest U.S.Census numbers.
We all know that, at the federal level, each state is represented by two senators in the Senate, and a number of representatives in the House of Representatives, as determined by population. Some states, like Alaska and Delaware, just have 1 Representative. California is the most populous U.S. state and as a result has the most Representatives at 53, each one representing a specific congressional district within the state. Milpitas lies in the 17th Congressional District and is represented by Ro Khanna.
Every 10 years, after the decennial census, redistricting takes place. The lines of the congressional districts are redrawn to account for shifting populations. The goal is to divide the state up into districts that contain roughly the same number of voters.
When this task is left to politicians, however, redrawing these lines to favor specific political interests becomes all too tempting. The term “gerrymander” was born in 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature redrew a district to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidate, Governor Elbridge Gerry. The resulting shape looked like a salamander on the map, hence the term “gerrymander.”
Whether gerrymandering is legal or not is a big subject of debate, but in several instances the courts have ruled it to be unconstitutional. This matters because this nation operates on democratic principles including equal representation, and if the voice of a certain group of people is not heard in Washington, D.C., well, that’s just not fair.
Some states, including California, have created independent commissions that have taken the power of redistricting out of the partisan hands of the legislature. In 2008, California voters passed the Voters FIRST Act, authorizing the creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC).
The CCRC is made up of 14 commissioners — 5 democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 with no party preference. Now, here’s where all of this gets exciting…one of these commissioners graduated from (drum roll please)….Milpitas High! Yes, it’s true! You didn’t really think I’d go into this long, drawn-out explanation of redistricting without citing a local connection, did you?
Enter Isra Ahmad, Senior Research & Evaluation Specialist with Santa Clara County’s Division of Equity and Social Justice. She moved to San Jose 3 years ago, but still calls Milpitas home: “I grew up in Milpitas, went to K-12 here, and my family is still here. So I’m really excited to reach back out to my community and let them know about this process, because their input is so valuable.”
Ahmad is the youngest amongst her fellow commissioners, but they are all brand new to the job, having just been appointed in August 2020. They have until 2022 to determine the new boundaries for California’s Congressional (53), State Senate (40), State Assembly (80), and State Board of Equalization (4) districts, based on the census data from 2020 and from their own outreach efforts. In case you’re wondering, Milpitas is in State Senate District 10 (represented by Bob Wieckowski), State Assembly District 25 (represented by Alex Lee), and State Board of Equalization District 2 (represented by Malia M. Cohen).
Districts aren’t just about population numbers, as people die and are born and move about, but perhaps more importantly are about defining ethnic and racial groups within communities, and identifying those people who share social or economic interests. The CCRC calls these groups “Communities of Interest,” and they are critical in understanding how districts should be delineated.
Says Ahmad, who is American Pakistani Muslim, “This process by design is reliant on communities, on people. We are redrawing the lines so that people have a chance at electing someone who represents their specific needs, whatever they may be. I’m especially excited to have the chance to talk with groups who otherwise may not have participated in this process, who may not understand it or think twice about it.”
The CCRC is currently in outreach mode, presenting their mission to folks across the state. This June, public input meetings will begin, and Ahmad is eager to meet people and hear their stories. She also encourages public input by way of email or phone, or by attending one of their public meetings. This information is all on their website: www.wedrawthelinesca.org. There is a tool on the site called “Draw My CA Community,” which is an easy way for people to get involved and make their voices heard.
The CRCC is just one of many redistricting efforts occurring across California. Counties, cities, school districts, water districts, and community college districts are also redrawing their boundaries at the same time.
For Ahmad, the past few years have been a little stressful and challenging, to say the least. Applications to be on the CRCC opened during the summer of 2019, with over 22,000 people applying. Certain eligibility requirements were reviewed by the State Auditor’s Office. Applicants were then screened and interviewed in a lengthy, thorough, and very public process. The full commission was seated in August 2020.
Ahmad is amazed she made it through: “I remember hearing the announcement on the radio driving home from work one day, and I thought it might be an opportunity for me to give back to my community in a very impactful and meaningful way. So I threw my hat in the ring to see how far I could go. I never expected to be seated. In fact, I was under 18 when the Voters FIRST Act was on the ballot, so I wasn’t even eligible to vote for it.”
The U.S. Census started collecting data in March 2020, just about the same time that COVID-19 began its reign of terror. The nation had to adjust. It’s important to understand here how vital the census data is. It not only helps in redistricting, but in a great variety of planning decisions, such as providing services for the elderly, building new roads and schools, and locating job training centers. It also informs states on how to allocate funding for neighborhood improvements, public health, education, and transportation. And it provides age information relevant to passport applications, qualifying for social security, and settling estates.
So when this data is delayed, the ripple effect is just astounding, and it affects us all. It has placed added pressure on the CRCC to produce results in a shorter time frame, while still conducting business in an open and transparent manner, and listening to all involved. Their new deadline is December 15, 2021. This could still change. They are also working with the state legislature to minimize the impact of the delay on the 2022 elections.
Other states with independent commissions include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and most recently, Michigan. At the federal level, a voting rights bill called H.R.1 was passed by the House of Representatives in March; it’s currently being debated in the Senate. It would require all states to use an independent commission for redistricting. Says Ahmad, “This could potentially bring our message to the national stage. I’m curious to see how other states view this process.”
This concludes our lesson for today. Democracy is indeed hard work. But in the end, it’s why we all enjoy the freedoms that we have.