Fear and anxiety have been in the air around California’s Latino political leaders in the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear arguments next fall in a Texas case challenging the 51-year-old legal and political doctrine of one-person, one-vote.
These fears may turn out to be far more correct than other recent scares for one party or the other.
The Texas case challenges the notion that congressional and legislative districts should be drawn with equal populations, regardless of the composition of the populace in each. That was the precept dictated by the Supreme Court in the 1964 case of Reynolds vs. Sims, which based its reasoning on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal protection of the rights of all persons under United States jurisdiction.
The challenge maintains that only U.S. citizens eligible to vote should be taken into account when drawing districts, thus leaving out children of all ethnicities, legal immigrants waiting to become citizens and many others, including undocumented immigrants. The undocumented, of course, are the main targets of this effort.
It’s facile to say that because Democratic fears over creating the Citizens Redistricting Commission that designed California’s current districts never panned out, the current fears won’t come to anything, either. In fact, Democrats control the California congressional delegation and both houses of the state Legislature by the same or larger margins under the new redistricting system as they did when state legislators drew the districts.
But some basic numbers suggest the change sought in the Texas case seems likely to create enormous change. And the current Supreme Court has shown it’s willing, almost eager, to retreat from previous signal laws like the Voting Rights Act.
In California, the consequences of a ruling supporting eligible-voters-only population counts could be enormous. They could propel Republicans into a much more equal status in California they the party now enjoys, despite the GOP’s dismal performance in registering new voters.
For instance, it now takes many more votes to win election to Congress in a reliably Republican district than in almost any Democratic district now represented by a Latino politician.
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In 2014, for example, Lucille Roybal-Allard won election with just 24,227 votes in an East Los Angeles district with about 250,000 residents. At the very same time, less than 50 miles away on the Orange County coast, Republican Dana Rohrabacher won election with about 85,000 votes. Democrat Xavier Becerra, also from East Los Angeles, was re-elected with 34,000 votes in that election, while Republican Carl DeMaio polled more than 75,000 in San Diego, but lost his race to Democrat Scott Peters.
The pattern was same in races for both houses of the state Legislature.
If the Supreme Court OKs the Texas measure, things would change radically for the Latino politicians who now benefit from the fact that their districts have low populations of potential voters compared to more conservative Anglo and black ones with many more who are eligible.
The main consequence would be that districts would shift in a major way, with parts of the currently Latino-dominated ones incorporated into more conservative nearby districts. That could lead to increased competition for seats long held by the many-termed likes of Becerra and Roybal-Allard.
There’s also the strong possibility states like California, Texas and Florida would lose substantial numbers of congressional seats to other state far from the Mexican border which have attracted far fewer undocumented immigrants. Because the undocumented are counted in the state’s population in determining how many seats in Congress each state gets, places with large numbers of illegal immigrants would lose seats and northern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota and Ohio and Massachusetts, with relatively small numbers of immigrants of all types, would gain.
The change would also see a massive redistribution of federal grant money for everything from highways and sewers to parks and airports, all now determined in large part by state populations. Those services are used by everyone who lives in a given area, not just those eligible to vote.
Which makes many kinds of fears over this potential change seem realistic, especially when some Supreme Court justices began musing along similar lines as far back as the mid-1990s.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.