She helped draw the lines our democracy relies upon
Sara Sadhwani loves to screen All the President’s Men in her political science classes at Pomona College, the private liberal arts college in Claremont, California, where she teaches.
The classic 1976 movie chronicles The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s meticulous unraveling of the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon.
“One of the key themes in the movie is the need for transparency in politics,” said Sadhwani, who earned her PhD in political science and international relations at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2019.
And transparency remains a core tenant of California’s Citizens Redestricting Commission, which recently finished redrawing electoral district lines for Congress, the state legislature, and the State Board of Equalization, which assesses property and certain other taxes. Everything the commission does is open to the public.
Sadhwani was one of 14 members selected to the commission from a pool of more than 20,000 applicants — a multistep process she wasn’t expecting to survive.
“I put my name in the ring, but I didn’t anticipate actually being selected,” Sadhwani said.
She and her fellow redistricting commissioners have spent thousands of hours since they were seated in July 2020 to get the maps redrawn. Technically, they serve through 2030, when the next commissioners will be selected. Redistricting happens every 10 years, following with the census count.
The experience has been richly rewarding, said Sadhwani, whose specialty is American politics and race and ethnic politics.
Her research examines voting behavior, elections, voting rights, public opinion, public policy, and interest groups, with an emphasis on the representation of racial, ethnic and immigrant communities.
At Pomona College, Sadhwani teaches general courses on politics and public policy, plus race and ethnic politics, immigration policy, and California politics.
Pursuing a lifelong interest
Sadhwani, who grew up in a small rural town in western New York, the daughter of immigrant parents, has been fascinated with the American political process ever since she was young. Her late father was a doctor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and her mother was a nurse.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and worked in social justice organizations in California for several years before attending USC Dornsife.
“USC’s location in the center of Los Angeles makes it a hub for studying California politics, and the opportunity to work with so many incredible faculty helped me become a better scholar,” she said.
Sadhwani’s doctoral dissertation identified variations in voting behavior between Asian Americans and Latinos, which gave her skills she brought to the redistricting commission — although commissioners don’t need formal training to be named to the independent body.
In 2021, for the first time in state history, the number of congressional districts dropped from 53 to 52 because the population didn’t grow at a high enough rate to justify keeping the 53rd seat. News reports say the redrawn lines still favor Democrats in an already blue-leaning state.
Sadhwani said she applied to the commission because of her general concern about fair representation and reports that the panel applicants lacked diversity. She was among the final pool of 60 candidates whose first eight slots on the panel were determined through a lottery process. Sadhwani’s winning number was the second one picked.
“I never win anything,” she said with a laugh. “I never win the ‘grab bag’ at a party. Nothing. I was pretty shocked, actually.”
Finding a balance
Sadhwani, who is married with three children ages 6 to 13, also is a fellow at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. And she recently co-published a paper, with Christian Grose, professor of political science and public policy at USC Dornsife and USC Price School of Public Policy, that showed how politicians are more susceptible to lobbying when it happens in social settings rather than in their offices.
Despite receiving a per diem of just $378, Sadhwani and other members of the Citizens Redestricting Commissionwere handed a budget of some $15 million and, right out of the gate, had to hire a staff of nearly 50.
“It’s a major undertaking for a group of people who didn’t know each other and are not given guidance,” she said. “Because we’re an independent commission, we’re not supposed to get guidance.”
That staff, their work now complete, is in the process of being disbanded.
Given the fiercely divisive political climate, Sadhwani thought it would be quite challenging to serve on the commission, which is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four Independents. (She’s a Democrat.)
Refreshingly, she said, it wasn’t — despite all the long hours and hard work.
“One of the best things about this commission was our ability to work together,” Sadhwani said. “Going into the process, especially given the hyper polarization we see in American politics today, I didn’t know what to expect. I was actually very concerned that I might have colleagues who were argumentative or unwilling to work collaboratively.
“And while we all certainly had our own opinions, it really didn’t seem to matter — Democrats, Republicans and Independents, we were all committed to a fair process and to upholding the law.
“I felt very close to my Republican colleagues just as much as my Democrat colleagues. It gives me so much hope for the future of American politics knowing that Democrats and Republicans don’t have to be that diabolically opposed to one another.”