By Elizabeth Castillo | CalMatters
California extended the deadline to ensure that prospects for its 2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission better represented the diversity of the state.
But as the application period closed this week, the final pool of 21,000 citizens asking for the chance to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts is larger, yes. But it’s still predominantly white, and majority male.
So can the state ensure a diverse commission without instituting the kind of quota system that would likely run afoul of the constitution?
Some advocates say the solution lies in the two-tiered system the state will use to select citizen commissioners from the qualified pool: A random lottery to choose eight commissioners, with those eight then tasked with selecting the final six commissioners.
“The six appointees shall be chosen to ensure the commission reflects this state’s diversity,” the commission website states.
For Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of government watchdog group California Common Cause, that fail-safe is enough to guarantee the commission accomplishes its goal: to reflect the state’s millions of voters in a fair and diverse way. While he admits the pool will probably always skew white, the increased number of candidates ensures plenty of qualified candidates who are neither male nor white.
“The best we could do was increase the size of the pool and insist that they extend the deadline to get more applications,” he said.
Lopez-Calderon compared it to the college admissions process. Once the thousands of candidates are whittled down to the eight final members, they can select the remaining six with diversity in mind.
“The skewed white male thing — hopefully they’ve gone over that hurdle and have enough applicants,” he said. “They should be able to find really good qualified applicants in the 40% of the pool and they are allowed to take (diversity) into account.”
The State Auditor’s office, charged with creating the commission, extended its application deadline earlier this month after a majority of the applicants were too white and too male.The consequence: The percentage of white applicants dropped 3 percentage points, to 60%. And 55% of the final pool are male.
“Californians really did step up at the last minute and a lot of people applied in the last few weeks,” said Lopez-Calderon. “Organizations across the state should be happy for the work that they did to make sure that we did get enough qualified applicants into the pool.”
When the commission sought applicants nearly 10 years ago, about 31,000 Californians answered the call. This year, the pool closes with about 10,000 less applicants.
The state might have drawn more diverse applicants, Lopez-Calderon said, if the auditor’s office had shifted its outreach strategy from “fancy PR firms” to diverse community organizations.
Still others worry the larger pool isn’t good enough.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the partisan makeup of the commission is problematic. The commission is required to include five Democrats, five Republicans and four citizens with either another party affiliation or none.
“It is structured to dramatically overrepresent the Republican Party and that is no longer a reflection of the voters of the state,” he said. “I do think that raises legal issues.”
California’s Republican Party has been in decline for the last decade and the number of independent voters is on the rise. Independents are the second largest group of registered voters behind Democrats.
Regardless, the auditor’s office said it was pleased with the outcome.
“We’ve said since the beginning that we were working to form a deep and broad pool of applicants,” said California State Auditor Elaine M. Howle in a statement. “We are thrilled to report that we met that goal with thousands of diverse applicants—race/ethnicity, geographic, gender, and economic backgrounds.”
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The author wrote this for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.