California redistricting board must stop meeting privately to prove democracy still works


In November 2008, Californians took a bold step to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and foster a stronger democracy by establishing an independent citizens commission.

The Voters First Act stripped the power of redistricting away from self-interested politicians, putting citizens free from conflicts of interest in charge and moving the decision-making process from behind closed doors into an open forum in collaboration with the public.

Ten years ago, we had the honor of leading that process as members of the inaugural California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Despite our different partisan affiliations, we conducted the redistricting process in a fair, accessible and, above all else, transparent way.

With a new commission seated and census data on the way, 14 other Californians will redraw congressional and legislative districts for the next decade. As the first commissioners, we have shared our experiences to help guide the new line drawers — a benefit we never enjoyed.

Our message to the current commissioners is simple: Stop the closed-door discussions and recommit yourselves to true transparency in this process.

This commission has held an unprecedented number of closed session meetings to untangle complex issues under the guise of personnel and legal deliberation. The Constitution allows few exceptions to the requirement that the commission hold its meetings in the light of day, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable discussions may get.

The commission seems to be relying on an overly narrow interpretation of “redistricting matters” and two-person subcommittees to sidestep its legal obligation to allow the public to observe and understand who is influencing and how it’s making decisions.

Yet the process of how it accepts redistricting input is as important as the content. Its April 21, Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting highlighted our concerns. Individuals from the Secretary of State’s Office, the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, the Statewide Database, Democrat and Republican representatives of the Legislature, Common Cause, and two redistricting commissioners all met behind closed doors.

The subcommittee only released a memo after the meeting, vaguely summarizing the discussion. The meeting left a perception of favoring the “invited” over others who were not — elevating certain stakeholders to advise on everything from timelines that will influence final map deadlines and elections to the minutiae of planning educational briefings.

Our concern is that this may remind some of smoke-filled back rooms of the past and lead to distrust in the process. The 2020 commission faces unique challenges because of COVID-19, including a protracted process due to delayed census data. Nevertheless, a bias toward transparency should remain a cornerstone of the commission’s objectives throughout.

Our commission a decade ago followed the rule of thumb: Three people makes a “meeting.” The next question should always be: Why wouldn’t we meet about this in public? It’s not too late for the 2020 California Citizens Redistricting Commission to address this issue.

Videoconferencing tools allow greater public access to commission deliberations. Extra time granted to this commission also makes it easier to comply with public noticing requirements. Likewise, announcing specific reasons for closed sessions in advance would not only make it easier for the public to plan, but also increase confidence.

Now is the time to reevaluate past practices and commit to full transparency for the duration of the redistricting process. This will provide greater protection to the legal standing of this commission’s final product and encourage ordinary Californians — not just those funded to follow redistricting — to participate.

The stakes are higher than just the fair representation of 40 million Californians. Democratic institutions are being threatened and scrutinized at every level. California needs a fully transparent redistricting commission to prove that this great experiment in direct democracy continues to work.

Cynthia Dai, a Democrat, and Jodie P. Filkins Webber, a Republican, served together on the 2010 California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission.