A lot of voters don't know that whoever wins the California governor's race could decide who controls the U.S. Congress.
Thursday, October 1, 1998
When Californians go to the polls to choose a governor on Nov. 3, they''ll have plenty of points to ponder. The candidates'' positions on abortion will sway some people, others will consider issues like student test scores, off-shore oil drilling and prison expansion.
But there''s a pivotal issue that won''t get much press coverage in the weeks leading up to the selection of California''s newest governor in eight years: the power of the state''s executive officer to approve or veto reapportionment--the new legislative district lines that will be re-drawn after the 2000 Census. And with that single vote comes the chance to affect the balance of power, not only in the California legislature, but in the U.S. Congress as well.
"Whichever party controls the governorship in 2001 will control reapportionment," explains Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State University Sacramento and a former chief staff consultant for the state Senate subcommittee overseeing reapportionment. "Whichever political party controls reapportionment will have a significant--perhaps determining--factor on who controls Congress in the 21st century. In a sense, Newt Gingrich''s future depends on Gray Davis or Dan Lungren."
"To the political professional, [reapportionment] is the most important thing at stake in the gubernatorial election, not only in California, but in Washington as well," says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who has written extensively on the significance of the upcoming reapportionment.
Simply put, reapportionment is the re-drawing of legislative and Congressional district lines that is mandated by state law to occur after every federal Census, in accordance with federal laws. The idea is to ensure equal representation throughout the land--i.e., that each voter gets an equal voice in choosing who represents him or her in Sacramento and Washington.
Without fair district lines, voters in an over-populated, crowded district would essentially have their voting power diluted if a handful of voters were given equal rights to the same number of legislators. Reapportionment also ensures that minority voters aren''t deliberately cut out of districts where they could exercise their voting might.
Those are the ostensible reasons for using Census data to draw new legislative and congressional district lines. But behind the scenes, political parties use reapportionment to draw district lines that increase their party''s chances of winning at the polls.
It is the legislature--state Senators and Assemblymembers--who draw district lines for state legislators and for California''s Congressional districts, with input from the state''s Congressional delegation. (California currently has 80 Assembly districts, 39 state Senate districts and 52 Congressional districts, although the 2000 Census is expected to show population gains that will increase those congressional numbers. The number of U.S. Senators is fixed at two per state, elected by the voters of each state at large, regardless of population.)
Those new lines must also be approved by the governor--the very same governor voters will elect on Nov. 3. Naturally, he can also choose to veto the new district lines--an option he''s likely to utilize if the new districts don''t favor his political party.
Of course, Democratic legislators want to create districts dominated by Democrats, thereby multiplying the odds of an increased number of Democratic Assemblymembers, state Senators and U.S. Representatives. Republican legislators--naturally--want to do the same for their party
"The legislators will try to set things up to, number one, protect incumbents, and number two, protect party interests," says Gary Patton, a Democrat and legislative counsel to the Planning and Conservation League who has just been appointed executive director of a local nonprofit.
And, since legislators frequently vote their party on issues ranging from gun control to school spending to abortion rights, the party holding the majority of elected seats can shape policy--affecting justice, education and social welfare for years to come.
Institutionalizing political dominance works best if both the state Senate and state Assembly are dominated by the same party. A Democrat-dominated Assembly isn''t likely to agree to the same reapportionment plan as a Republican-dominated Senate--and vice versa. And, even if both houses are dominated by the same party, their reapportionment plan must be approved by the governor.
But lots of times, the system doesn''t work as smoothly as it sounds. After the 1970 and 1990 Census, Republican governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson refused to sign off on the plans devised by a Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate. As a result, the task of drawing new district lines was given to the California Supreme Court, which in turn relegated the task to a panel of three retired judges.
Those judges ended up drawing lines judged fair and equitable by most parties. By contrast, the 1980 reapportionment designed by the Democratic-controlled legislature and approved by then-Governor Jerry Brown in the waning days of his administration was largely viewed as a complete rout for Republicans. So outrageous were the districts created that the late Congressman Phil Burton, who authored the plan, called it "my contribution to modern art," according to Walters.
"If either the Demos or the Republicans control the process, the same thing [as the 1981 reapportionment] will happen," predicts John Laird, president of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party.
What will happen to district lines after the 2000 Census is still a mystery, but several scenarios are possible.
Early polls showed Davis ahead of Lungren in the gubernatorial race, although more recent surveys have called the race fairly even. But although the gubernatorial piece of the puzzle will be settled several years in advance of reapportionment, legislative elections in the year 2000 will determine which party holds the cards in the state legislature. Most pundits predict that Democrats will be able to hold on to their majority in the state Senate, but the Assembly is regarded as fair game for Republican gains.
If the Republicans have the governorship and the Assembly, they just won''t pass a [reapportionment] bill," predicts Hodson. "The Assembly will pass over to the Senate a reapportionment plan, the Senate will refuse to pass it." Under that scenario, Hodson predicts a return to a court-appointed redistricting panel--a situation that will also occur if one party holds the governorship and their opponents have control of the legislature.
Walters, who has studied the upcoming reapportionment exhaustively and who has even run spreadsheets on the issue, predicts a court-appointed panel would ultimately favor Republican representation. His reasoning is based on the fact that population gains and population shifts within the state have been in the more rural, inland areas of Central and Southern California--areas that tend to favor Republican majorities.
Therefore, he reasons, a largely impartial judicial panel drawing lines solely on population shifts could end up giving Republicans the edge they need to control both the state legislature and California''s Congressional delegation as well. Walters predicts California''s population increases will merit gains of between three and six new Congressional Districts. And, since California already has the largest delegation in Congress, new seats in Republican-controlled districts could help Republicans retain control of Congress well into the next century.
For leaders of groups concerned with ensuring representation to voters of color, the 2001 reapportionment will mean change. Specifically, leaders wonder about the effects of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions weakening interpretation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act guaranteeing equal representation to all. And, they''re worried about a plan being launched by Republicans to support a suit challenging the use of new statistical sampling methods to ensure an accurate count of Latinos in 2000.
In recent years, heightened awareness of the Voting Rights Act and increased involvement by groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) have had a profound effect on reapportionment, and ultimately, on the election of Latino and African-American legislators. But, says Denise Hulett of MALDEF, that doesn''t mean Latino leaders will sit out reapportionment in 2001.
"Neither one of the political parties have treated us particularly well over the course of decades," says Hulett. "We''ve learned that our hope and our promise lies in the Voting Rights Act and through enforcement of the principles in that act, whether through the courts, or lobbying or whatever." cw