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California's newly drawn legislative and congressional lines cleared a major hurdle today when the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that they do not dilute minority voting power in four counties under federal oversight.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires such approval of any new political districts formed in Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba counties to ensure that they do not adversely affect minority groups.

The justice department gave the green light in a two-paragraph ruling that did not elaborate on its findings.

A Republican-backed coalition, Fairness & Accountability in Redistricting (FAIR) had filed arguments with the justice department challenging the legality of the newly drawn state Senate maps, focusing their arguments on lines drawn in Monterey and Merced counties.

Rather than simply apply a mathematical standard, the commission should have considered past voting patterns and drawn lines that gave minorities a clearer opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, according to FAIR.

A Senate district should have been drawn that joined the East San Jose area in Santa Clara County with the Salinas area in Monterey County. Latinos would have comprised nearly 39 percent of the voting age population in an area that has a history of electing members of their minority group, FAIR argued.

The commission also could have drawn lines in a way that paired Merced County with Central Valley communities in forming a Senate district with a Latino voting-age population of more than 60 percent, Bell said.

The commission consistently has argued that its maps were drawn fairly, after dozens of public hearings, using criteria approved by voters, without discrimination or adverse impact on minorities.

"In fact, each district maintains or improves the position of racial minorities," the commission said in a 44-page filing to the justice department.

Republican officals have expressed concern since their adoption in August that the new Senate districts favor Democrats and could give that party a two-thirds majority in the upper house, the margin needed to raise taxes or fees.

In a separate effort to overturn the Senate maps, FAIR has filed petition signatures with county elections offices in an attempt to place those districts before voters in November. Signatures are being counted, with support from 504,760 voters needed to qualify for the ballot.



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