Republican activists trying to overturn some new voting districts cleared a significant hurdle toward putting the issue on the ballot by turning in petitions bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures.
But the next step — verification of those names by county elections officials — could take long enough to stymie the proponents' goal of getting new state Senate districts drawn by the state Supreme Court in time for next year's elections.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen has said that vetting all the signatures could take until mid-March, after the Feb. 23 deadline for some candidates to file for the June primary. The timing could mean that the maps drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission would be used until voters could weigh in on the November ballot.
The referendum would allow voters the final word on the Senate maps. Dave Gilliard, a consultant who oversaw the $2.5-million signature drive for a group called Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting (FAIR), said the activists believe the state's high court could act in time for the June elections. He said FAIR's attorneys believe current redistricting law gives the court the authority to create new maps once signed petitions for the referendum have been filed.
"We believe we have put in enough signatures to put the commission's lines on hold and there will be new lines in June and November," Gilliard said this week.
Attorneys for the redistricting commission have refuted that interpretation, arguing that only the qualification of a referendum for the ballot counts in prompting the state high court to act.
The issue of timing also could be important for a federal lawsuit filed this week by other Republican activists seeking to overturn the redistricting commission's congressional maps. A separate group of Republicans, including former Rep. George Radanovich, filed the suit, which alleges that the congressional maps violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by failing to protect minority rights in some places.
The case, filed in the Central District of California, "provides irrefutable evidence" that the commission "intentionally ignored federal law" in drawing the new districts, Radanovich said in a statement announcing the suit Wednesday.
Earlier, Republican interests filed suit in the state high court against the Senate and congressional maps. The court unanimously rejected both challenges last month.
"We expect our maps, once again, to withstand any legal challenges. It is unfortunate that this baseless litigation is a waste of precious taxpayer dollars," said Commissioner Stanley Forbes, current chairman of the redistricting commission.
Assuming the measure makes the ballot, Forbes said he expects voters would uphold the commission's maps. Until then, he added, "it is the commission's expectation that our state Senate districts will be used in the 2012 primary and general elections."