LOS ANGELES â€” Here in California, Democrats have just one candidate for governor (and he has already done the job), and state lawmakers from both parties seem incapable of passing even modest legislation without a meltdown.
But while the stateâ€™s political class may be languid, a sea of residents is not. Nearly 31,000 of them have raised their hands for the complex and highly bureaucratic task of redrawing the districts of the State Legislature and of the State Board of Equalization, which administers certain taxes â€” the only citizen effort of its kind in the country.
â€œAs you know, California is in a mess,â€ said one of those citizens, Gordon G. Bernstein-Potter, a member of the Green Party from Vacaville. â€œIâ€™m a native of California, and I want to help in some small way to bring California back.â€
The wild popularity of the redistricting commission reflects the political climate around the country and in California in particular, where voters have become disgusted with the stateâ€™s budget crisis and capitol gridlock. Further, the state has a well-oiled reform industry of sorts, fueled by voter initiatives and money.
â€œThis is just a sign of just how engaged or enraged people are by the political process,â€ said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside.
Like every other state, California redraws its legislative boundaries every 10 years to reflect new population data. That job had been left to lawmakers â€” at times with the intervention of the California Supreme Court â€” but in 2008, voters (barely) passed a ballot measure supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and various election reform groups that transferred the responsibility to a Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Now, a review panel is plowing through the roughly 26,000 applications that made the first cut â€” about 5,000 did not meet the basic criteria â€” to find 14 commission members. In California, a state of 37 million people with some legislative districts more populous than many other statesâ€™ Congressional ones, the potential realignment of power and money is lost on few.
The applicants include Linda Crase, who was recently laid off from her job as a hospital executive and who longs to â€œmake a differenceâ€; and Jade Keala Agua, a 26-year-old employee at the University of Southern California who wants to ensure that Asians and other minorities are represented.
Redrawing legislative districts in the countryâ€™s most populous state is clearly daunting. In a Harvard working paper on redistricting, Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Richard T. Holden concluded that the number of possible ways to construct political districts in California was â€œlarger than the number of atoms in the universe.â€
But only slightly less confounding is the process for getting a spot on the commission. First, a panel from the state auditorâ€™s office will review the application materials, which include letters of recommendation and personal essays from commission hopefuls. The panel will then somehow identify 120 of the most qualified applicants â€” 40 Democrats, 40 Republicans and 40 that are either independent voters or members of other parties â€” interview them and winnow the number down to 60, 20 from each subset.
In early October the auditor is expected to hand over the 60 names to the stateâ€™s four legislative leaders, who will have until Nov. 15 to eliminate two names each from the three subsets. From the remaining people, the state auditor, Elaine M. Howle, will randomly draw the first eight commissioners â€” three Republicans, three Democrats and two others â€” and those eight will then select the remaining six members. The final outcome will be five Republicans, five Democrats and four others.
Applicants range from professors, doctors, lawyers and businessmen to the unemployed. There are those whose family incomes exceed $250,000, and those who are barely getting by. All must have voted in the last few elections, and some have had political jobs.
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