- Ballot Measures
- Public Opinion
Why is the California of Tomorrow Missing from the Constitutional Debate of Today?
The voters who applied last month to redraw the state’s legislative districts look very different from the Californians who will live in them. While the demographic contrast between applicants for the new Citizens Redistricting Commission and the rest of the state may be difficult to interpret, it is impossible to ignore. Put plainly, those who signed up to draw the legislative district lines that will last for the next decade look more like the California of yesteryear than our state’s population today, and even less like the California of tomorrow.
According to demographic data compiled by the state auditor’s office, 77% of the applicants are white, with white men outnumbering white women by nearly a three-to-one margin. Contrast this to the state’s population right now, which is 42% white. Latinos make up 37% of the state’s population, but just 8% of applicants. Asian-Americans are almost as poorly represented, making up only 3% of the list of potential commissioners and 12% of the state’s residents.
The difference between those who have signed up to draw our political districts and the state as a whole can only grow over time. Combined, Latinos and Asian-American will make up a projected 54% of the state’s population by the time of the next census, but members of these two groups together make up only one in ten of commission applicants.
Noting this pattern does not indict the Citizens Redistricting Commission, which could look very different after auditors select the most qualified applicants, elected officials rule out a few of them, and a random draw determines the makeup of the final commission. Reasonable people can argue about whether demographic representation should be a goal for the commission. But this startling pattern should serve as a warning signal that the critical decisions we are making today about our state’s district lines – and about California’s constitution itself – need to be made with full participation by all of the diverse groups that will make up California tomorrow.
In this “Year of Reform,” as governmental gridlock has led Californians to consider fundamental changes to our constitution, some voices have been blaringly silent in the debate. Despite the best efforts of many reform groups, the audiences at town hall meetings called to change the constitution have not looked like the state itself. Fresh polling evidence puts this predicament starkly. The multilingual Field Poll recently conducted in cooperation with Stanford, Berkeley, and Sacramento State researchers and the non-profit group Next10 shows that minority voters are much more likely to stand on the sidelines of key constitutional battles.
The poll asked registered voters whether they favored or opposed proposals to change things like the votes required to pass a budget or to amend the constitution via an initiative. White voters took clear stands; whichever side they took on these controversial questions, more than 90% expressed a clear opinion. Not so for some minority voters. The percentage of voters who expressed no opinion on these consequential questions was much higher for Latinos, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and especially Vietnamese-Americans. Indecision was still higher for voters who chose to answer the survey in their native language rather than in English, reaching over 50% for some ethnic groups. Any change to the constitution will have to be endorsed by a majority of voters, but this poll warns that many members of the state’s fastest growing groups would sit out that election if it were held today.
Though speculating about why some voters are more engaged than others in rewriting our governing rules is difficult, one clue may lie in the high participation rate of African-Americans in these debates. Blacks, who make up 6% of the state’s population today, account for 7% of the redistricting commission applicants, and the Field Poll shows that even more African-American voters express clear opinions on constitutional questions than white voters. Why is this group of Californians so engaged? Perhaps it is because a generation of experience with the Voting Right Act has shown that governmental rules and district lines have profound impacts on the power of African Americans to elect leaders of their choosing and to secure a fair share of public services.
The challenge for those who wish to rewrite our constitution is to make the case that the rules count, and count for everyone. Reformers must show why abstract changes to things like campaign finance and voting thresholds in Sacramento will reverberate in communities across the state. They have great opportunity to reach a broad cross-section of voters through the organizations they belong to and the media outlets that they listen to, and a danger if this opportunity is missed. The project of remaking our constitution for the next generation or the next century will only succeed if it involves the Californians of today and tomorrow.
Thad Kousser is a visiting professor at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West and a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.