Saturday, July 23, 2011

California State Senate District Numbering: Special Election Law Should Be Amended

The issue of odd/even state senate district numbering has vexed the California political system after every decennial redistricting since the scheme began 132 years ago. Due to shifting district numbers and lines, citizens inevitably are subject to “deferrals” (having no senator until a year ending with “4”) and “accelerations” (having two senators during that period).

If a senate seat that will be elected in November 2014 becomes vacant early, current state law strangely requires use of “old” district borders in special elections held before then, even though “new” districts take effect for other senators in 2012. Absurdly, un-represented residents of the new district are deprived of an opportunity to resolve their “deferral” while residents of the old district may get to elect two senators a few months apart (or even on the same day).  

Courts have upheld this practice, but have not forbidden alternatives.  In Legislature v. Reinecke (1973), the California Supreme Court held there was no violation of the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause in the continuance of staggered terms in state senate elections following redistricting.
The court observed that if the California Constitution's provision concerning staggered terms were given effect, the senators in odd districts elected in 1972 were entitled to serve until 1976, and if vacancies occurred in those districts before 1976, they would be filled using the 1972 districts.  This is a longstanding principle, earlier upheld in People ex rel. Snowball v. Pendegast (1892).  However, no court apparently has required this practice.

California Elections Code sec. 10704 mandates that special elections be held in "the district in which the vacancy occurred." The Legislature ought to revise sec. 10704 to mandate that new senate district boundaries be used in all special elections on and after November Election Day in years ending “2.” Otherwise, Governor Brown should order use of new districts in special election proclamations that he issues pursuant to California Constitution, Article IV, sec. 2 (“When a vacancy occurs in the Legislature the Governor immediately shall call an election to fill the vacancy.”). These remedies would ensure that senators represent as many Californians as possible.

UPDATE (December 8, 2012): State Sen. Doug LaMalfa resigned his senate seat in September 2012 in anticipation of his victory in the vacant 1st Congressional District race in November 2012.  Consequently, a special election to determine his replacement in the "old" 4th Senate District was held on November Election Day.

The "old" 4th Senate District included all of Del Norte, Siskiyou, Shasta, Butte, Tehama, Glenn, Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties and portions of Nevada and Placer (Rocklin, Lincoln, Loomis) counties.  The "new" 4th Senate District encompasses a much smaller geographic area: all of Tehama, Glenn, Colusa, Sutter, Yuba and Butte counties plus portions of Placer (city of Roseville) and Sacramento counties.

Siskiyou and Shasta counties, western Nevada County (Grass Valley/Nevada City) and the Lincoln/Loomis/Rocklin area of Placer County, have been transferred to the new 1st Senate District.  Consequently, voters in those areas voted for two state senators on the November 2012 ballot (the "old" 4th District and the new 1st District).  Del Norte and Trinity counties were transferred from the old 4th District to the new 2nd Senate District (but they voted in November 2012 for the special senate election in the "old" 4th District).

The city of Roseville in Placer County presently does not have representation in the state senate as it was part of the "old" 1st Senate District (which no longer exists) and is part of the "new" 4th Senate District (next election is in November 2014).  Therefore, Roseville is a "deferral" state senate jurisdiction.

Had Elections Code sec. 10704 been amended or had Governor Brown issued a special election proclamation declaring that the "new" Senate District 4 been "the district in which the vacancy occurred," then the city of Roseville would be represented in the state senate the next two years and Siskiyou and Shasta counties and the Grass Valley/Nevada City area of Nevada County would have been spared the second senate election.

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