NEW LEADER OF COMMON CAUSE —
CENSUS CHAMPION WANTS A DEMOCRACY THAT HEARS EVERY
On the day he assumed leadership of California Common
Cause, Jonathan Mehta Stein said getting people counted in the
2020 census is crucial to the organization’s goal of making
politics more democratic.
“First and foremost, respond to the census…We want our fair
share for our communities,” he said in an interview with EMS.
The lifelong Bay Area resident comes to Common Cause from
San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, part of the national Asian
Americans Advancing Justice organization. He also worked for
the American Civil Liberties Union after earning his law degree
at UC Berkeley.
Watching his non-naturalized Indian immigrant mom’s political
activism and seeing up-close challenges to effecting change
inspired his work, he says.
“We had this sense that participation matters.”
Stein emphasized census participation as a priority because
data the Census Bureau is collecting will not only inform how
the federal government will spend more than $1.5 trillion
annually over the next ten years. It will also form the basis for U.S.
Congressional apportionment decisions and individual states’
Common Cause pioneered redistricting reform by driving
California’s 2008 Voters First Act, also known as Proposition
11, which put the job of determining the boundaries of the
state legislature’s 40 senate and 80 assembly seats into the
hands of a bipartisan commission of 14 non-politicians
Two years later, Proposition 20 expanded that commission’s
authority to include California’s 53 congressional districts.
By making the process public through hundreds of community
meetings up and down the state to gather input on how
political maps should be drawn, and then review proposals, the
reform curtailed the ability of incumbents to draw districts to
include only those voters most likely to re-elect them.
“There are some communities that have been locked out
intentionally,” Stein explained, for example by dividing a
relatively homogenous community into smaller pieces folded
into surrounding districts, thereby reducing it to minority status
States decide for themselves where their political boundaries
are drawn. Over the years it’s led to the process called
“gerrymandering,” in which those in power could draw the
boundaries in such a way as to favor their re-election.
In the wake of the Voters First Act, “California has become a
model for the rest of the country,” Stein said. Nine other states
have followed suit, and now have bipartisan redistricting
commissions of their own.
“In both Republican and Democratic states, voters have
consistently approved independent redistricting,” Stein said.
Congressional reapportionment, the once-every-decade
parceling out of seats in Congress according to population, is
done by the Clerk of the House of Representatives, but census
data informs those decisions as well.
Stein is also passionate about changing the role of money in
politics and what he calls “the absurdist campaign finance
system.” While working as an enforcer of campaign finance
laws in Oakland, he said, he saw that 93% of campaign
contributions came from just 1% of the population.
He is intrigued with Seattle’s “Democracy Dollars” voucher
system that provides community members small public fund
vouchers they can assign to a campaign or candidate of their
This changes the dynamic of candidate fund-raising and
community engagement by making it well worth their while to
engage with constituents in other ways than high-stakes,
exclusive fund-raising events.
Stein also has his sights set on increased voter participation. He
cited “deep voter disparities” such as Asian Americans voting
at a 33% rate, and Hispanics voting at 36%. Every other group
votes at or above 60%.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, “our in-person outreach no
longer exists,” Stein notes. “We have to find ‘virtual’ ways.” In a
Facebook Live event, Stein called for “culturally competent,
linguistically competent messengers.”
“You need a different message for different communities, for
those frozen out of power, out of philanthropy.”
You can’t advocate “restoring democracy,” he said, to those
who felt they were never included in the first place.
“If we want to build a society that is more equitable,” Stein
said, “it’s time we build a democracy that hears every single
voice.” ( Cs / IM )