Challenges to state Senate maps may sway Democratic power

It’s been nearly three months since the California redistricting commission released its maps for 177 congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization districts.

They’re not quite final. A Republican-backed referendum to overturn state Senate maps is pending, with signatures to qualify for next year’s ballot being submitted this week.

The state Supreme Court had summarily rejected a GOP legal challenge to the Senate maps. But were the referendum to gain enough signatures to qualify for next year’s ballot, the Supreme Court would be compelled to step back into the issue, deciding which Senate districts would be used for the 2012 elections pending the referendum’s outcome.

However, the court and the ballot are not the only venues for challenging what the commission wrought. Any election law changes that affect four California counties — Monterey, Merced, Yuba and Kings — are subject to review by the U.S. Justice Department under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Why those four? Mostly, it’s because all four had major military bases in the 1960s and therefore large populations of voting-age residents who didn’t vote in local elections. That, coupled with their significant Latino populations, made them arithmetically subject to the Voting Rights Act, which was written to block Southern states from denying voting rights to blacks.

Republicans have already filed challenges to the Senate plan with the department, and Latino rights groups are likely to join them because the Senate plan does, in theory, reduce opportunities for Latinos to win seats, especially in the Monterey area.

The GOP’s moves on the Senate plan don’t reflect the party’s concern for Latinos so much as its concern that, as drawn, it would give Democrats an opportunity to gain a two-thirds majority and thus reduce Republican clout on tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote.

Ironically, should any of the challenges force a major rewrite of the Senate plan to improve Latino prospects, the corollary effect could well be to reduce Democratic prospects for a two-thirds majority.

Meanwhile, both parties and the many interest groups with stakes in the outcome of the battle for the Senate are preparing for political war in 2012 and 2014 over the two or three seats whose outcome will answer the two-thirds majority question.

The reconfigured 27th Senate District in Los Angeles’ northwestern suburbs shapes up as the major battleground.

A very liberal Democratic senator, Fran Pavley, is likely to face a very conservative Republican senator, Tony Strickland, in the 27th District, which is a very middle-of-the-road venue that voted Republican in 2010, but has a strong pro-environmental tilt — Pavley’s main claim to political fame.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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