Fresno officials gerrymandered their districts. Time to take our voting rights back | Opinion via The Fresno Bee

By Jonathan Mehta Stein and Pablo Rodriguez, courtesy of The Fresno Bee

Read the full article in The Fresno Bee

Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right that makes possible all other civil liberties and policy decisions. But a threat to that right now comes before the ballot box: Redistricting, which can make or break a community’s ability to participate in our democracy. It determines who does — and does not — have fair representation.

Last fall, the nation witnessed the dark underbelly of California redistricting when audio recordings of Los Angeles City leaders making racist comments and planning behind-the-scenes gerrymandering of LA’s City Council districts leaked to the public. The recordings showed exactly how backroom deals divide our neighborhoods and hurt our communities. And it shows how anyone in power can gerrymander — Republicans or Democrats.

But gerrymandering isn’t just an isolated incident in Los Angeles. That scandal is only a symptom of a much larger problem bubbling beneath the surface that occurs throughout the state, including in the Central Valley.

Consider Fresno, a county where our organizations spent over a year deeply dedicated to local redistricting. There, the Democrat-led city and Republican-led county both gerrymandered their districts to keep incumbents in power, slicing and dicing communities in the process. The county utilized an advisory redistricting model, meaning political insiders hand-selected by incumbents advised the board on final district lines. The city used an incumbent model, where sitting council members were able to directly choose their voters when deciding on a final map.

In both instances, community members got educated, stepped up and packed hearings to capacity in order to make their voices heard. In both, they were ignored. In the county redistricting process, a map that was originally drawn in 1990 that split Black, Latino, Hmong, Punjabi and Muslim communities was readopted yet again, despite the county’s growth and diversification.

A recent report found that the 2020 local redistricting cycle saw countless calls for inclusion and transparency ignored as neighborhoods and communities across the state were split in order to keep elected officials in power. The report also found that independent commissions led the most participatory, inclusive and transparent redistricting processes in the state by far. By contrast, the most manipulated, self-serving and least participatory processes were all run by sitting incumbents.

What happened in Fresno — and what happened in cities and counties across the state — demonstrates exactly why independent redistricting commissions are needed. Gerrymandering, and whether or not power is truly held accountable to the people, is not a partisan issue, it’s a democracy issue.

California has shown that independent redistricting works and made itself a leader on the issue. Our state-level independent, citizen-run redistricting commission is the envy of the nation, with local iterations flourishing in the 2020 redistricting cycle.

But a patchwork solution to a statewide issue is not enough. It’s time to take this reform to all of our local communities.

Directly shaped by the evidence and experience from 2020, a critical pair of statewide redistricting reform bills — Assembly Bill 764 and AB 1248 — is currently moving through the Legislature, nearing its final destination: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. Backed by civil rights, good government and community organizations, these bills would empower communities to make their voices heard in the redistricting process and help end gerrymandering at the local level.

The FAIR MAPS Act, passed in 2019, was the first significant reform of California’s local redistricting law since the 1940s. It made the local 2020 cycle a far more transparent and participatory process than ever before. Still, however, the law was undermined throughout California. AB 764 seeks to remedy this by strengthening the FAIR MAPS Act’s redistricting criteria, public engagement requirements and transparency measures, and extending its key protections to additional local governments, like school boards and special districts. It would also prohibit incumbency-protection gerrymandering.

AB 1248 would require certain large local governments to establish an independent redistricting commission before the 2030 redistricting cycle. If they fail to craft a commission locally before then, they would be required to utilize a more detailed default commission outlined in state law.

Our families, neighborhoods and communities are worth investing in. Despite a difficult budget year, we can still claim long-term, pro-democracy wins by ushering in this much-needed redistricting reform. Since these bills will take effect in eight years during the next redistricting cycle, their cost isn’t a factor in this year’s budget.

We can end the abuse of redistricting and set the national standard for putting the needs of the people before the needs of politicians.

Pablo Rodriguez is the founding executive director of Communities for a New California, an organization fighting to achieve public policy that is socially, economically and environmentally just for California families.

Jonathan Mehta Stein is the executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.