Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
December 6, 2015

  • For a half century, legislative and congressional districts have been equal in population
  • Plaintiffs before Supreme Court say districts should be created by number of potential voters
  • If successful, lawsuit could aid conservatives by forcing districts to be redrawn

When an independent commission redrew California’s legislative and congressional districts four years ago, equalizing their populations was a bedrock goal.

That’s because the commission obeyed a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, dubbed “one-man, one-vote,” that seemingly prohibits districts deviating more than slightly in population.

The decision greatly changed California’s political dynamics because, until then, the state Senate’s 40 districts were aligned with boundaries of the state’s 58 counties – one senator to a county, except for a few who represented several sparsely populated rural counties.

The old system meant a Senate dominated by members from rural regions. Immense Los Angeles County, with more than a third of the state’s population in 1960, had just one senator, for example.

After the court-ordered changes in Senate districts, it became – and still is – dominated by urban members. Los Angeles County, now down to about a quarter of the state’s population, has all or pieces of 15 Senate districts.

The decades-long assumption that legislative and congressional districts must be equal in population may not be engraved in stone after all.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in a case out of Texas suggesting that equalizing the number of potential voters, rather than raw population, would be fairer.

When districts vary widely in the number of voters, the plaintiffs contend, individual voters in districts with large numbers have their impact diluted, vis-à-vis voters in low-voting districts.

Moreover, they note, raw population includes those who cannot vote because they are noncitizens, felons or under voting age, so it’s unfair to count them for redistricting purposes.

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