The US Supreme Court’s decision on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act stirred up a lot of controversy over voting rights in the Southern states that it mostly covered, but completely overlooked was its strange impact on California elections. Section 5 required certain states and counties to submit election law changes to the US Department of Justice. The US Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional because of an outdated formula for the covered jurisdictions. That formula had brought four small California counties under the law: Merced, Monterey, Kings and Yuba Counties because of the extra populations brought in by the then thriving military bases in those counties when the formula was developed. This was an anomaly that lasted more than 40 years.

That anomaly is playing a big role in the State Senate special election this July in which Democrat Leticia Perez faces Republican Andy Vidak. This special is something of a throwback to the past because it will occur in the old Senate District 16, drawn by the legislature in 2001 and filled in 2010 by former Sen. Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield), who resigned the seat earlier this year. The bipartisan 2001 redistricting made this as safely a Democratic seat as possible, by combining heavily Democratic parts of the city of Fresno with those in the city of Bakersfield, connected by various arms and hooks that was so typical of the 2001 plan. The district is 51 percent Democratic and only 29 percent Republican, and President Obama carried it handily in 2008 and 2012.

But there was a problem in drawing a safely Democratic seat: the presence of Kings County right in the middle between Fresno and Bakersfield. Kings County, one of the four Voting Rights Act counties, is anything but Democratic – it is 45 percent Republican and only 36 percent Democratic.

The Voting Rights Act had been interpreted to require that the four VRA counties not be divided so all of Kings County went into this district. That gave Republicans a shot, and in this special election they are taking it. In the special primary election in May, GOP candidate Vidak carried Kings County, his home county, by 7,800 votes, 74 percent, while he received 49.8 percent district wide. For him to win the July 23 special runoff, he will have to match or exceed his showing in Kings County.

There was much hand-wringing among Democrats last week when the Supreme Court threw out the old VRA formula, but in fact the only reason why Republicans are competitive in this otherwise solidly Democratic district is the presence of Kings County. Had the Voting Rights Act not been a factor when the lines were drawn in 2001, the Democrats surely would have taken only the Democratic parts of Kings County in drawing the 16th SD. Vidak would probably not even live in this district and there would have been no opportunity for a Republican to win.

It is not just the Senate where this Voting Rights Act anomaly helped Republicans. The overlapping 21st Congressional District also includes all of Kings County. It was won in 2012 by Rep. David Valadao (R- Hanford), and his victory provided the only pick-up of a former Democratic congressional seat for the GOP in 2012. He would not have won the congressional race without this county.

Whether Vidak will finally prevail remains to be seen, but it is clear that without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this special election would not even be a contest, and in this part of California it is the Republicans who were helped by the Voting Rights Act.

First published in Capitol Morning Report