By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services

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’

redistricting plans.

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

in each.

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 )

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