Dan Walters

Opinion: Arizona Republicans’ lawsuit could help California Democrats

State Auditor Elaine Howle reads the first person selected in a random drawing to select the first eight members of the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Secretary of State auditorium in Sacramento on Thursday, November 18, 2010. The first person selected was Democrat Jeanne Raya.
State Auditor Elaine Howle reads the first person selected in a random drawing to select the first eight members of the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Secretary of State auditorium in Sacramento on Thursday, November 18, 2010. The first person selected was Democrat Jeanne Raya. hamezcua@sacbee.com

More than a half-dozen of California’s Democratic congressional members had a scare in last month’s election, barely winning re-election against unexpectedly strong Republican challenges.

Their close calls were the product of two factors.

One was a record low-turnout election, with scarcely 42 percent of the state’s registered voters casting ballots. It proved again an old axiom that low turnouts help Republicans.

The second factor was that congressional districts were redrawn by an independent commission after the 2010 census, rather than by the Legislature or the courts.

The commission’s remapping – by design or happenstance is uncertain – helped Democrats pick up congressional seats in California in the high-turnout 2012 presidential election by creating more districts potentially winnable by the party.

But in doing so, the new maps necessarily narrowed the lopsided registration margins that many Democratic congressional members had previously enjoyed when a Legislature dominated by Democrats drew the lines.

Those narrower registration margins came into play this year with the lower voter turnout, producing uncomfortably close outcomes for some Democrats.

They can look ahead to easier re-elections in 2016, a presidential election year in which turnout is likely to be at least 50 percent higher. And a pending U.S. Supreme Court case might alter the lines enough to lock in their seats even if turnout falls again in 2018.

Arizona also has an independent redistricting commission, and its Republican-controlled Legislature wants to regain power to draw congressional districts as much as California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature presumably would like to have it back.

The Arizona Legislature sued, contending that the U.S. Constitution plainly says that states and “the Legislature thereof” have that exclusive power, thus making it unconstitutional for a commission to exercise it. The Legislature lost before a divided federal appeals court and is taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“Here, the Legislature has been completely deprived of that power … and a favorable decision by this court will plainly redress the Legislature’s injury by restoring its constitutional authority,” the Legislature’s Supreme Court brief contends.

Opponents argue that Arizona voters, through an initiative, lawfully shifted the power to the commission, a view that prevailed in the appellate court.

With Republicans now controlling most state legislatures, conservatives may hope that the Supreme Court will side with Arizona’s Legislature and enhance the GOP’s chances of maintaining control of Congress for many years.

But California’s Democratic members may yearn for that outcome as well, because they could count on Democratic legislators to make their districts safer.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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