Redistricting illustration

I’ve been asked to briefly describe the work of Berkeley’s Independent Redistricting Commission and its progress to date.

First, let me give you a little history of what we lovingly call the “IRC”.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of independent commissions, rather than legislative bodies, to draw the boundaries of legislative districts for states or cities after each census, is Constitutional. There are now 13 states using this independent process. California has used an independent commission for its last two post-Census redistrictings, and its process is considered an outstanding model.

There are 14 cities and counties in California that are now using independent commissions to draw their legislative district boundaries.

In 2016, Berkeley voters approved a measure amending the City’s charter to transfer responsibility for drawing electoral boundaries for Council districts from the City Council to an Independent Redistricting Commission.

The Commission comprises 13 members with broad community representation, and the process for their selection is set out in the Municipal Code.

The current Commission began its existence in the fall of 2020, when the City Clerk, Mark Numainville, opened the application process for Berkeley residents who wished to be considered for Commission membership. By the time applications were closed in early October, 133 people had been approved as candidates through an eligibility filter.

The candidates were grouped by the Districts in which they reside, and with the use of numbered ping-pong balls spun in a Bingo cage, one person was selected randomly to be the Commissioner representing each of the 8 City Districts. These selected people then reviewed the balance of the applications (some 125 of them) and then met via Zoom to discuss their choices for the 5 At-Large Commissioners. The City Clerk staff had prepared a matrix that described each candidate by their ethnicity, gender, age, and geography, in an effort to facilitate choices that reflected the “broad community representation” required by City law.

I was one of the 5 selected to be an At-Large Commissioner by the 8 people who had been chosen via the spinning ping-pong balls. Just as a side note, throughout my professional life as a lawyer in 3 states, my sex as a woman has counted for or against me on many occasions, and has seldom been a neutral factor. In this instance, being a white woman older than 66 years of age, living in District 6, was a magic formula contributing to my selection. I fulfilled needed criteria.

So we started our work in March of 2021, informing Berkleyites of our existence and soliciting their submissions of draft maps of the Council District boundaries after the 2020 Census figures were released in late April. We also asked people to submit forms describing their “Communities of Interest” that they would like to have honored as the Commission establishes boundaries. Considerations like common neighborhoods around a school or park or faith center, or an ethnic group that would like to be kept cohesive, for maximum political effect.

By the time the deadline for maps submission had closed November 15, 29 draft maps had been submitted. And 55 Communities of Interest forms have been submitted so far—we’ve decided to keep that process open.

We have a March deadline to adopt the Council Districts map and submit it to the Council for them to formalize in April. This is just a pro-forma procedure; the Council has no role in amending our submitted Map.

The big requirements that we must follow when drawing the District boundaries are that we must do nothing that would favor incumbents (we don’t even have their addresses); that we have no discussions about what we’re doing with people outside of the public hearings and meetings; and that we must follow the Census requirements of federal law, the most important of which is that the size of the final Districts are within 10% of the Census figures defining the number of people who fall within the districts.

I and my fellow Commissioners have never been in the same room together; we have never breathed the same air; and for the most part, we only know what we look like from the chest upwards. We’re hoping that we can have at least one public, in-person meeting to which real, live Berkeley citizens are also invited, as we finalize our Districts Map before submission to the City Council for adoption. But of course we have no way of knowing at the moment if our hope will come true. It’s entirely possible that we will actually complete the work of the Commission without ever really having gotten to know one another in any kind of a personal way, and this is my biggest regret.

–Sherry Smith

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