An independent citizens' panel is expected to vote to adopt new maps for California's congressional and legislative districts, completing a process that is expected to promote more Democrats to office but one that also will open the door to potential legal and ballot challenges.
Following dozens of meetings since the start of the year, the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission will vote Friday on the final version of district maps for Congress, the state Legislature and the state Board of Equalization, which administers sales and use taxes. At least nine commissioners have to support the lines, including at least three each from Democrats, Republicans and independents.
"We think these are good maps," said Angelo Ancheta, a Democratic commissioner from San Francisco. "I think all of us feel that one, it's certainly worth supporting if you're a voter, and two, that we followed the criteria and we've exercised good judgment."
Even before the vote, the maps were being heavily scrutinized by political parties, communities and minority groups because they will be used in state elections for the next decade, helping shape the composition of the 120-member state Legislature and California's congressional delegation.
Groups can challenge the maps in court if they think the panel did not do its job correctly. Such a challenge, if successful, would require the state Supreme Court to appoint special masters, likely retired judges, to draw the boundaries.
"I think there are a lot of groups that are going to look at it," said Matt Rexroad, a Republican redistricting consultant. "We had a lot of people who were talking about referendums and things even before they saw the final lines."
The California Republican Party is exploring the possibility of seeking a ballot referendum next year to undo the commission's work.
Political consultants who have been monitoring the panel's work all year said Democrats stand to gain more seats simply because of the state's changing demographics, which includes an expanding Hispanic population.
"Obviously there are a number of individual Democrats who are not pleased. But for a party as a whole, they certainly did better than the Republicans did," said Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.
Among the most intriguing questions surrounding the new maps is whether Democrats will gain the two-thirds majorities they need in the Assembly and Senate to pass tax increases.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was stymied by Republican lawmakers this year in trying to persuade the Legislature to call a special election so voters could decide whether to extend temporary tax increases, most of which expired June 30.
Democrats also could make gains in Congress since the new maps create more competitive districts. The redistricting process overseen by the Legislature in 2000 protected incumbents and maintained safe seats for both parties, reducing competition.
The first draft, released in June, had created boundaries that would appear to expand California's Democratic congressional delegation by five. The 53-member delegation currently includes 19 GOP lawmakers.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said some Republicans who initially supported the independent citizens panel might be regretting their decision and called the new process fair.
"They were clearly drawn without an agenda," Burton said of the new districts.
Tom Del Becarro, chairman of the California Republican Party, said the GOP is continuing to study the maps.
"We're sort of in a wait-and-see moment," he said. "Lawsuits and a referendum are possibilities, depending on what happens."
Voters approved the commission in 2008 and last year expanded its authority to congressional districts, removing the responsibility from the Legislature in a move designed to lessen the influence of political parties. Under its mandate, the commission was not supposed to consider incumbency or party registration figures in drawing political boundaries. Instead, it tried to group communities by geography, ethnicity and economic interests.
The commission members _ five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents _ were selected in a random process overseen by the state auditor's office. They came under criticism earlier this month when they decided against releasing a second draft of the maps, instead focusing on creating the final maps being released this week. Final certification is due by Aug. 15.
Ancheta said most commissioners felt it was necessary to skip the second set of drafts because there was not enough time to produce a good set and make it interactive and available online.
"Trying to do a second draft would have rushed us. We would have lost a lot of time that we actually needed to do line-drawing," he said.
Rexroad, the GOP redistricting consultant, said the move made the process less transparent and criticized the panel for not making maps available in a timely manner.
The commission also struggled to meet voting requirements for minority groups.
Hispanic advocacy groups were alarmed by the commission's first draft, which they said would have disenfranchised the fastest-growing segment of California's population and electorate. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund raised the possibility of legal action under the 1965 Voting Rights Act if the commission did not make changes.
After the commission made accommodations, the final maps are expected to create as many as 28 legislative and congressional districts in which Hispanics are expected to have a strong influence in determining the outcome, according to Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell.
Blacks also were able to preserve their influence in the Los Angeles area despite a decline in the percentage of blacks in the county as more leave the urban core for the suburbs.
Leaders in that region's black communities had feared they could lose at least one congressional district, but the commission retained three districts in which black candidates have an edge.
"Overall, there is relief that we still will have an opportunity to elect candidates of choice, and that's what we set out to do," said Erica Teasley Linnick, coordinator of the African American Redistricting Collaborative, which was formed to advocate for black voters and draw community attention to the redistricting process.
Parties and politicians also will be closely studying the new district boundaries. In some areas, incumbents of the same party will have to face each other.
In the San Fernando Valley, Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman may be forced into the same district, although members of Congress do not have to live in the districts they represent. In San Bernardino County, Democratic Rep. Joe Baca would have the advantage in a new district that would include a region now represented by GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis, but the veteran Republican lawmaker could mount a stiff challenge if he chooses to run in that district.
New seats oriented toward Hispanics are expected in the Central Valley and east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley. That poses opportunities for Democrats, but also challenges because they lack a deep bench in typically Republican strongholds such as Riverside.
"Our challenge would be finding a qualified, strong candidate down there because we haven't elected as many people down there," Mitchell said.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams contributed to this report.