Dan Walters: New California Senate Maps Still Up In The Air

Story published in Sacramento Bee on Dec.9th

California law says that three weeks hence, on Dec. 30, candidates can begin taking out papers to run for legislative and congressional seats next year.

But while the state's redistricting commission completed its work nearly four months ago, it's still not certain whether all of its districts will survive because of a referendum to overturn the state Senate maps, maneuvers in the state Supreme Court and a U.S. Justice Department review.

The underlying stakes – although never mentioned in the documents – are whether Democrats can gain a two-thirds majority in the 40-member Senate and thus the power to raise taxes without Republican votes.

Were the commission's Senate maps to remain in effect for the next two election cycles, Democrats would have at least a 50-50 shot at a two-thirds majority.  If the maps are changed to enhance Latino representation, it becomes less likely.

It's saturated with political irony.  Republicans were jubilant when voters created the independent commission, believing that it would protect them from a Democratic gerrymander.

But GOP leaders disliked the resulting maps and sponsored the referendum petition drive to give voters the final word on Senate districts next year.

Were the referendum to make the ballot, the state Supreme Court would decide what Senate districts would be used for the 2012 elections – either the commission's maps or substitutes drawn up by the court.

At the moment, the validation rate for the referendum signatures is not looking good for the Republicans, but we may not know until March whether their petitions have the 504,760 valid registered voter signatures required.

Republicans already lost one state Supreme Court bid to have the commission maps set aside but are now asking the justices to suspend the nominating process until the referendum's fate is known. Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen and the commission are opposing them.

But there's also the U.S. Justice Department, which must clear the maps because four counties – Monterey, Merced, Yuba and Kings – are subject to monitoring under the federal Voting Rights Act. It has until mid-January to make a decision, although it could take longer, and is now conducting an inquiry into whether, as some allege, the Senate maps don't sufficiently protect Latinos.

The controversy appears to center on Senate District 12, which includes portions of both Monterey and Merced counties, and SD 14, which covers Kings County.

Were the Justice Department to reject the Senate maps, someone – who and how are uncertain – would draw new ones.  Revision would probably damage Democratic hopes for a two-thirds majority.  That may explain why major Latino rights groups are staying out of the battle.

So what will happen? No one knows. But whatever it may be, it will be very soon.