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August 2, 2011 > New Calif. political maps to favor Democrats

New Calif. political maps to favor Democrats

By Judy Lin, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), Jul 29 _ A citizens commission established by voters to independently create California's legislative and congressional districts delivered its first set of maps Friday, voting to adopt new boundaries that appear to give majority Democrats even more power in the nation's most populous state.

The 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission approved final draft versions of district maps for Congress, the state Assembly and Senate, and the state Board of Equalization, which administers sales and use taxes.

Even before the vote, the drafts were being heavily scrutinized by political parties, communities and minority groups because they will be used in state elections for the next decade, helping shape California's congressional delegation, the nation's largest, and the composition of the 120-member state Legislature.

Redistricting experts said the new maps are likely to reduce the influence of Republicans even further.

Democrats are hoping the redrawn districts will allow them to achieve the two-thirds majority needed in the Legislature to pass tax increases, while the number of Republicans California sends to Congress _ now 19 _ could be reduced. According to Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell, Democrats will now have a shot at reaching two-thirds in the Senate and gain a couple more seats in Congress, but the maps offered the majority party no advantage in the Assembly.

Two of the commission's Republican members, Michael Ward of Anaheim and Jodie Filkins Webber of Norco, voted against the new congressional boundaries.

Ward said the independent panel approved by voters in 2008 was intended to take politics and special interests out of the once-a-decade process of setting new political boundaries, but he did not think that had happened.

``In my opinion, the commission failed to fulfill its mandate to strictly apply the constitutional criteria, consistently apply race and community of interest criteria, and sought to diminish dissenting viewpoints,'' he said before final votes were taken.

The California Republican Party has said the commission's decisions were not transparent enough and will consider a lawsuit or a ballot referendum.

At least nine commissioners had to support the new boundaries, including at least three each from Democrats, Republicans and independents. The new Assembly, state Senate and Board of Equalization districts were approved 13-1, with Ward dissenting each time. The congressional maps were approved 12-2.

Final certification is due by Aug. 15, allowing time for public viewing.

Voters approved the commission in 2008 and last year expanded its authority to congressional districts, removing that responsibility from the Legislature in a move designed to lessen the influence of political parties.

The lines drawn by the Legislature after the 2000 census protected incumbents and the partisan split in the Legislature and Congress, creating an environment that locked in Republican and Democratic seats and all but eliminated competition.

Under its mandate, the commission was not supposed to consider incumbency or party registration figures in drawing political boundaries. Instead, it tried to group communities by geography, ethnicity and economic interests.

The commission members _ five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents _ were selected in a random process overseen by the state auditor's office.

Several commissioners on Friday said they were pleased with the outcome, especially considering the difficulty in trying to appease so many groups in such a large and complex state, with nearly 38 million people.

The political geography has been shifting along with the state's changing demographics. Republicans have been losing registration and now comprise less than a third of all voters, while one of every five voters is registered as an independent.

Political consultants who have been monitoring the panel's work all year said Democrats would gain more seats through the process simply because of the state's population shift, which includes an expanding Hispanic voting bloc.

Many commissioners said they made compromises but produced the best result they could and one they believe is fair.

``California is a massive and complex state, and within that context this commission did a tremendous job of balancing the complexities of the process and the people,'' said Michelle DiGuilio, a Democratic commissioner from Stockton.

The commission struggled to meet voting requirements for minority groups.

Hispanic advocacy groups were alarmed by the commission's first draft, released in June, which they said would have disenfranchised the fastest-growing segment of California's population and electorate. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund raised the possibility of legal action under the 1965 Voting Rights Act before the commission made changes.

After the commission made accommodations, the final maps created as many as 29 legislative and congressional districts in which Hispanic voters have a strong influence in determining the outcome, according to Mitchell, the Democratic redistricting consultant.

New districts created in the Central Valley and east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley also were oriented toward Hispanics. That poses opportunities for Democrats, but also challenges because they lack a deep roster of strong candidates in typically Republican strongholds such as Riverside.

Blacks preserved their influence in the Los Angeles area despite a decline in percentage as more leave the urban core for the suburbs. Leaders in that region's black communities had feared they could lose at least one congressional district, but the commission retained three districts with a strong black presence.

``Overall, there is relief that we still will have an opportunity to elect candidates of choice, and that's what we set out to do,'' said Erica Teasley Linnick, coordinator of the African American Redistricting Collaborative, which was formed to advocate for black voters and draw community attention to the redistricting process.

Some new districts overlap existing ones, meaning some incumbents of the same party could face each other when they run for re-election.

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