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Justices limit law that shaped California's political map

11:52 AM, Jun 25, 2013   |    comments
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Ask anyone who watched California's citizens redistricting commission draw political maps in 2011, and they'll tell you every decision began with an eye on the federal election rules that have now been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

STORY: Supreme Court voids key part of Voting Rights Act

Which begs the question: are California's current congressional and legislative districts in any jeopardy?

The decision strikes a large blow against long debated provisions of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) that require even small electoral changes in some communities receive formal approval, or 'pre-clearance,' from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The issue was whether certain communities-- counties, even entire states-- have such a disturbing record of voting discrimination that they must submit to strict federal scrutiny in the future.

Dating back to 1970, California had four counties that fell under the 'pre-clearance' voting rights provisions: Yuba, Merced, Monterey, and Kings.  In these counties, federal authorities had determined that historically low minority voting levels were evidence of efforts to suppress their vote.

And that brings us to redistricting, the once-a-decade redrawing of political maps.  Every set of California maps since the 1970s have been drawn with special care to those counties, including the maps drawn by an independent citizens panel in 2011.

(Merced County was taken off the Voting Rights Act 'pre-clearance' list by federal officials last year.)

"We started out with that," says Stan Forbes, a Sacramento area bookseller who served as one of the eleven redistricting commissioners.  "Our first hearings were done to cover those four counties."

Forbes says that the entire California political map -- lines that grouped or separated millions of voters -- was drawn by starting with the four 'pre-clearance' counties and moving outward.

It could be the last time that anyone ever does so.

"Until Congress comes back and adjusts the [Voting Rights Act] formula," says Loyola School of Law professor Justin Levitt, "there's no more obligation for any county to run its laws by the federal government."

Levitt points out that now, these California counties only have the same minority voting rights rules as every other community, not additional ones.

That again highlights the 2011 process here in California, where several other legal criteria -- keeping political districts relatively compact, not carving up communities of interest, and others -- were secondary to a part of federal law that the nation's highest Court has now all but called a historic relic.

Those who watched the 2011 process in detail certainly see real effects the now-thrown out rules had an impact -- like the drawing of a Central Coast state Senate district that, absent the now rejected system, might look much different.

Commissioner Forbes himself points out one area that would have looked much different absent the VRA pre-clearance counties: the oddly shaped 'tail' of a Senate political district that curls around Bakersfield.  "That was done, he said, "to be sure we didn't disturb the voting percentages."

Election law professor Levitt says someone could, in theory, legally challenge the existing California maps, arguing that the commission could or should have drawn the lines differently.

But that kind of lawsuit likely would fail.

"The Court struck down the [existing] formula for pre-clearance, not the idea of pre-clearance," he says.

And, observers point out, the Voting Rights Act still allows communities that discriminate against minority voters in the future to be brought in to federal oversight.

The ruling does, though, likely mean big changes to the next redistricting process in California, scheduled for 2021.  No longer will these counties (which some argue never should have been given special rules in the first place) drive the decisions about the political representation of citizens statewide.

Note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. to add an observation from Forbes about Bakersfield, one mistakenly left out of the original posting.

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