Democracy on the High Wire: Citizen Commission Implementation of the Voting Rights Act
70 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2012 Last revised: 16 May 2013
Date Written: August 13, 2012
The Voting Rights Act, often praised as the most successful civil rights statute, is among the most fact-intensive of election regulations. California, the country’s most populous and most diverse state, is among the most challenging terrain for applying the Act. California is also the largest jurisdiction at the vanguard of a burgeoning experiment in indirect direct democracy: allowing lay citizens, not incumbent officials, to regulate the infrastructure of representation.
In 2011, fourteen California citizens strode into the briar patch where citizen institutions intersect the Voting Rights Act. These fourteen comprised the state’s brand-new Citizens Redistricting Commission: an official body of laypersons responsible for applying, in the face of substantial public skepticism, the most nuanced of regulations to the most complex political landscape in the country.
This article, building on prior theoretical work regarding citizen control of public institutions, assesses the new Citizens Commission’s approach to complying with the Voting Rights Act. It offers the first comprehensive review of an actual citizen commission’s engagement with a legal structure that is poorly understood by most citizens. The article opens a rare window not only on the procedures involved in implementing the Voting Rights Act — including new amendments applied to redistricting for the first time in 2011 — but on the process by which a citizens commission may undertake public responsibilities more generally. And in so doing, it highlights decision paths likely to inform not only future citizen bodies, but a range of officials confronting the Voting Rights Act across the country.
Keywords: redistricting, Voting Rights Act, citizen commission, independent commission, innovative public institutions, case study
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