A Last Nail in the GOP’s California Coffin
Steven Greenhut
by

Sacramento

The California Republican Party has been vanquished at the state level with Democrats having control of every constitutional office (governor, treasurer, secretary of state, etc.) and supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. But Democratic officials aren’t content with such a rout, as they use their legislative power to manipulate the election system to destroy what’s left of the Republican power base in counties and suburban cities.

GOP leaders ought to be prodding Donald Trump’s Justice Department to look into the seemingly unconstitutional disenfranchisement of 1 million or more voters. But the Assembly GOP leadership is too busy making anti-poverty efforts and happy-face public relations their centerpiece. And Senate GOP leaders couldn’t keep their tiny caucus from giving Democrats the one vote they needed to massively raise gas taxes last week.

But hope springs eternal.

The issue involves the Legislature’s passage last year of a redistricting cram down on Los Angeles County. It was so heavy-handed that the Democratic-controlled county decided to challenge it in court. Bottom line: The Legislature approved a redistricting plan that will virtually lock out Republicans in the nation’s most-populous county, and they are taking a similar model to other counties where Republicans still win elections.

California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 11, which took redistricting out of the partisan hands of the Legislature and vested the map-drawing power in the hands of a supposedly nonpartisan citizens’ commission. You can’t really take politics out of the political system, and savvy Democratic activists have managed to outmaneuver Republicans on creating new districts after the 2010 Census, but the commission idea was a sound one.

But last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 958, authored by one of the Senate’s most partisan members, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, that appears superficially to be modeled on the statewide redistricting-commission idea.

The new law creates a 14-member Citizen’s Redistricting Commission to create new districts for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The board is a powerful elected body that runs a county government representing more than 10 million people. But instead of seeking to make its operation less political, the new law is designed to make it more partisan, which means even more Democratic.

As the Senate analysis explains, the law “Requires the political party preferences of commission members to be as proportional as possible to the registered voter population in the county, as specified.” In other words, commission members will be selected based on their party preferences, which means that partisan Democrats will always control it and make sure that there’s no district left that could possibly elect a Republican.

When the bill was authored the county had two GOP supervisors. Now it’s down to one. GOP registration is a measly 19 percent. Natural selection — i.e., Republican voters are dying or moving elsewhere — is cutting the Democrats’ way, but party leaders are trying to hasten the process by rigging the election boundaries.

It’s also a Democratic power grab that obliterates the influence of California’s growing bloc of voters — those who “decline to state” their party preference. That’s where the disenfranchisement comes in, given 1 million non-affiliated L.A. County voters who have lost their right to serve on a commission that decides the county’s political boundaries. In reality, these “decline to state” folks are a bigger threat to the Democrats than the incompetent Republicans.

In its court filing opposing the new law, Los Angeles County argues that the law violates the state Constitution by “imposing ‘special’ or ‘local’ laws on particular counties without an adequate reason for treating individual counties differently than others across the state as a whole.” The county also argues the state Constitution “requires county offices to be nonpartisan,” but S.B. 958 insists that commissioners are selected based on party affiliation.

The new law will assure that commissioners are liberal voting-rights activists. Commissioners must “possess experience that demonstrates analytical skills relevant to the redistricting process and voting rights.” They must also “possess experience that demonstrates an appreciation for the diverse demographics and geography of the county of Los Angeles.”

It’s easy enough for the GOP to write off Los Angeles County, but a bill has been introduced this year that would impose a similar redistricting scheme on San Diego County, although it would allow some influence of decline-to-staters. San Diego County has a Democratic majority, but Republicans control four of five supervisor seats. It’s easier to see partisan designs here. Republicans can expect Democrats to take this approach to other counties where Republicans have significant power, from Orange to San Bernardino to Riverside to Fresno.

“The Democrats are using the legislative process to severely weaken GOP influence at the county level, which is their stronghold,” said Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert and Democrat who has been involved in efforts to boost Latino voting representation over the last 30 years. He says it’s similar to the way the Texas Legislature marginalized Democrats in the 2011 congressional election, which is something he strongly condemned.

The Trump administration could take cues from the Obama Justice Department, which took aim at that redistricting play. But it would help if some Republicans in Sacramento tried to get the administration’s attention on this.

Furthermore, Sen. Lara this year has introduced Senate Bill 691, which would require candidates for almost all city and county offices to “disclose his or her party preference, or indicate that he or she declines to disclose a party preference, on the affidavit of the nominee.”

“The most important issue here is this is an attack on the nonpartisan system for city council and down-ticket races that’s been effective for decades,” Clayton added.

Like all reforms from the Progressive era (the initiative, recall, and referendum), nonpartisan elections never took the party influence or big money out of the process, as Gov. Hiram Johnson had hoped. But with Democrats in control of every lever of power, Republicans and third-party candidates can still have relevance thanks to these measures. Direct democracy still gives, say, taxpayer advocates the chance to go directly to voters to reduce taxes or halt some crazy new law. And in a world where people often vote party label, the nonpartisan approach is helpful to non-Democrats. It’s ironic that conservatives here are dependent on early 20th century progressive reforms to stay in the game, but that’s just the reality we live with.

If legislative leaders wanted to actually improve representation at the county level, they could expand the number of supervisors. It’s absurd to have counties with 10 million, 3 million or even 1 million residents represented by only five supervisors. But that’s not what’s going on here, which is merely an effort to put the final dagger in the heart of the state GOP.

It’s time for Republican leaders to wake up to what’s happening and to enlist the help of the feds, given the voting-rights implications. If they don’t start soon, there may not be any reason left to bother.

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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