California redistricting panel needs to be set up correctly

California’s new redistricting commission began its work Tuesday, and its members quickly learned that process — how they go about their job — will be at least as important as their product of new legislative and congressional district maps.

Indeed, the process, beginning with how the eight initial commissioners select six additional members, may determine whether the product survives the inevitable legal challenges and takes effect two years hence.

The initial eight, chosen by lot from the 36 finalists who survived a convoluted selection process that began with more than 30,000 applicants, must bring more ethnic, gender and geographic balance to the commission.

There are, for instance, four Asian Americans on the initial panel, even though that ethnic group is only about 13 percent of California’s population. And there are more women than men, and more Northern Californians than Southerners, even though the south part of the state has more population.

Representatives of various ethnic and geographic groups are already pressing their cases for more memberships. The University of California’s Center for Governmental Studies marked the commission’s first meeting by issuing an advisory memo on balancing its makeup.

“Hispanics, whites, males and various geographic areas are as yet underrepresented,” the center said. It said the commission needs at least two more Latino members to bring that group’s membership to 33 percent, close to its 37 percent population share.

Interestingly, the report specifically mentioned one of the remaining finalists, Paul McKaskle, who drew up two redistricting plans for the state Supreme Court after the 1970 and 1990 censuses, in recommending that “members who have both the experience and knowledge necessary to perform their duties” be chosen.

The makeup of the final commission is important not only because the ballot measure that created it requires diversity and balance, but because the districts it draws will almost certainly be challenged by those who feel aggrieved, likely in the courts, either state or federal.

The new districts will largely determine how the political parties, ideological factions and individual politicians fare in California for a decade. Those are big stakes and unless the process and the product are squeaky clean, they will be picked apart by those who would like to influence or undermine the commission.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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