If ‘one person, one vote’ ended in Sacramento

Oak Park residents attended a contentious redistricting hearing before the Sacramento City Council in 2011.
Oak Park residents attended a contentious redistricting hearing before the Sacramento City Council in 2011. Sacramento Bee file

In a case recently accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court, conservative activists from Texas are challenging one of the most basic rules in redistricting, one that requires the size of each electoral district be equivalent in size based on total population.

Under the “one person, one vote” principle, while voters select representatives, it’s all people within the geographic area that count in drawing district lines – kids, adults, citizens and non-citizens alike.

The case deals specifically with legislative lines, but the rules, if changed, would carry through to local efforts every 10 years to redraw City Council boundaries. Its impact at the local level could be significant, especially in communities like Sacramento with strong diversity but also very different populations within each neighborhood.

Sacramento’s 2011 redistricting was contentious. A new citizens commission provided for greater community input, but the council’s final say allowed last-minute maneuvering by elected officials and savvy political groups.

The result was a plan that has some detractors but did a good overall job balancing fair representation of ethnic groups, a growing gay population, downtown interests and suburban neighborhoods.

If the Supreme Court were to change the rules, the losers are clear – the three African American City Council members. The white council members and one Latino would either hold pat or make small gains.

Each of the current council districts contains an average of 58,000 people, based on the 2010 census, with the largest and smallest districts just a few percentage points above or below that average.

But if the court ruled that only eligible voters should be counted, that would result in a new baseline of 38,000 per district. District 2 held by Allen Warren and District 8 held by Larry Carr would each be about 15 percent below the 38,000 target because they have lots of children and non-citizens. Steve Hansen’s District 4 in the downtown area, with few kids or non-citizens, would be about 20 percent above.

In the redistricting game, being overpopulated can be good and being underpopulated can be bad. An overpopulated district can consolidate its base and focus resources on a smaller area.

For example, Hansen’s district could wrap even more tightly around the downtown/midtown voters and heart of the LGBT population that is his base of support.

Conversely, because their districts would need more people, the political and ethnic bases for Warren and Carr, two of the three African American council members, would be significantly diluted. The other, Rick Jennings, could get caught in the domino effect.

Warren’s district in the Del Paso and North Sacramento areas would have to gain voters by either taking them from the Natomas-based district represented by Angelique Ashby or from Jeff Harris’ East Sacramento district.

District 8 in south Sacramento would need to absorb a large chunk of voters from either Jennings’ district or Jay Schenirer’s. The most likely scenario would be a major shift of the Jennings seat into Land Park.

While the national discussion will be about the impact of the high court’s decision on Congress or state legislatures, the bigger impacts for minority communities could be closer to home, as can be clearly seen by looking at Sacramento’s district lines.

Paul Mitchell is vice president of Political Data Inc.