Commentary: Make rural residents’ voices count in redistricting


Issue Date: June 19, 2019
By Mike Zimmerman
Mike Zimmerman
Applications have opened for Californians to serve on an independent commission that will draw new district boundaries for congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization seats following the 2020 census.
Photo/Christine Souza

Every 10 years, after the federal census, California must redraw the boundaries of its congressional, state Senate, state Assembly and Board of Equalization districts to reflect population distribution. The importance of drawing fair districts that represent us equally cannot be overstated. Unlike most states, Californians have the ability to serve as commissioners during this process.

In 2008, California voters passed the Voters FIRST Act, authorizing creation of an independent commission to draw the lines, composed of 14 members, including five Democrats, five Republicans and four who are registered either as decline-to-state or with another party.

People may be familiar with the term "gerrymandering," a term coined in the early 1800s after Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew lines that favored his party. One of those districts was so oddly shaped that it resembled a salamander. Local news reporters began to call it a gerrymander, and the term was born.

Since then, examples of gerrymandering abound, and the power of drawing the lines had been left to politicians whose sole goal was re-election. For example, California was once home to a congressional district dubbed the "ribbon of shame," because the district was 200 miles long and only a few miles wide, in order to consolidate a Democratic district along the Central Coast.

When California created its first commission, selected after the 2010 census, there were high hopes it would not fall victim to the outside pressure and political games that have dominated redistricting for decades. However, there are still examples of the commission failing to respect communities of interest and disregarding natural geographical boundaries, county and city lines. The city of Fresno is split into several Assembly districts; voters in certain parts of the city of Riverside have different representatives than their neighbors across the street; the city of Modesto is seemingly split right down the middle. These are just a few examples of how the previous commission failed.

Despite the desire for an independent commission, partisan organizations and other community groups still found ways to influence the process during public hearings and comments. In fact, several redistricting experts were hired by numerous groups to submit maps to the commission that favored their interests. What's more, environmental groups, labor unions and social-justice groups organized in large numbers to testify in front of the commission in hopes of achieving desired political outcomes.

It is no secret they were largely successful. An article that appeared in ProPublica in December 2011 summed it perfectly.

"The citizens' commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players," the story said. "To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party's interests."

When they appeared before the commission, ProPublica wrote, "those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento."

For rural residents, a commission that represents and reflects all of California is vital to ensuring our way of life is protected, and it is imperative that the voice of agriculture is heard in this process. To make that a reality, the California Farm Bureau Federation encourages its members to apply to serve on the commission. Commissioners who understand agriculture could be the difference in making sure our communities of interest, water districts, cities and counties are not broken up and ultimately represented by people who don't understand or respect the work we do.

The requirements to serve on the commission are straightforward. Commissioners must have been registered to vote since at least 2015 and free of the conflicts of interest that disqualify service.

According to California law, the conflicts include:

  • Being appointed, elected or a candidate for state or federal office.
  • Serving as an officer, employee or paid consultant of a political party.
  • Serving as an officer, employee or paid consultant of a campaign committee of a candidate for federal or state elected office.
  • Serving as an elected or appointed member of a political party central committee.
  • Acting as a registered federal, state or local lobbyist.
  • Serving as paid congressional, legislative or Board of Equalization staff.
  • Contributing $2,500 or more to any congressional, state or local candidate for elected office in any year.

The conflicts apply to the 10 years preceding an individual's application and apply to the applicant or a member of the applicant's immediate family.

If you believe you are qualified to serve on the commission, please visit shapecaliforniasfuture.auditor.ca.gov to learn more about the requirements. The initial application period is open until Aug. 9.

If you are interested in applying for the commission but have conflicts of interest, your help is still needed. Farm Bureau will organize members to testify at public hearings so our voice can be heard.

Should you have any questions about the process or qualifications, please contact me as shown below.

(Mike Zimmerman is political affairs manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at mzimmerman@cfbf.com or 916-561-5617.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.