Reporting from Sacramento and Los Angeles -- California voters will decide in November whether to repeal new voting districts for the state Senate, drawn last year by a citizens panel they created.
Republican activists on Friday qualified a referendum on the issue. Elections officials determined that the group Fairness and Accountability In Redistricting (FAIR) turned in 511,457 valid signatures of registered voters, about 6,000 more than needed to put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.
"FAIR will be asking voters in November to vote 'No' on these faulty Senate maps, so that new, fair and competitive districts can be drawn and put into place for the rest of the decade," Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant for the group, said in a statement. He said the districts were "gerrymandered'' by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which used new census data to redraw the 40 districts.
State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton called the referendum "sour grapes" on the part of Republicans who did not get the political advantage they hoped for in the new maps.
"I believe the voters are going to sustain the commission's maps, just as they voted for the commission in the first place," Burton said.
Voters in 2008 passed an initiative that created the commission to redo legislative districts, taking the once-a-decade job away from state lawmakers. In 2010, voters expanded the commission's authority to include congressional districts.
Commission Chair Jeanne Raya defended the maps Friday, saying they were determined in an "independent and open redistricting process."
Voters' voices "were heard in the tens of thousands of Californians who testified at statewide public hearings and submitted maps for the Commission's consideration," Raya said.
The California Supreme Court recently upheld the new boundaries, which will stand for this year's elections. The key question now is whether the Republican interests will campaign hard for their referendum or abandon it as a moot gesture.
Many experts expect Democrats to gain seats with the new districts, even achieving a two-thirds majority in the Legislature's upper house. That's an important threshold; a two-thirds vote is required in both houses for lawmakers to raise state taxes.
With a presidential election and several congressional seats on the line in California and control of the House at stake in the fall, some observers think it unlikely that Republicans will devote campaign time and money to a referendum that wouldn't matter until the next state elections, in 2014.
Gilliard, who oversaw the $2-million signature drive to put the referendum on the ballot, said there will be a robust campaign to overturn the Senate maps, noting that the results will resonate beyond this year's elections.
"Now the voters have to decide what districts they want for the next 10 years," Gilliard said.
McGreevy reported from Sacramento and Merl from Los Angeles.