"Keep San Francisco Odd," as some of the city's residents are demanding, shouldn't be a tall order, what with national headlines about campaigns to ban infant circumcision and block the sale of goldfish.

But that's not what the demand is all about. Rather, it refers to a stupefying numbering phenomenon in the once-a-decade redrawing of California's political districts. The result of that process could sideline some state Senate incumbents and deprive millions of voters of even one senator while bestowing upon others the gift of two.

How could this happen?

It's complicated. In fact, the number shuffle is so hard to explain that trying to describe it devolves into a parody of Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" skit.

But broadly speaking, it is the unavoidable collision between the renumbering of the state's newly drawn 40 Senate districts and the body's four-year terms.

Half of the Senate's seats come up for election every two years. Odd-numbered districts will appear on the 2012 ballot and even digits in 2014.

So, for example, a senator who swaps an odd digit district for an even one is out of a job for two years, while an even-number senator who turns odd must run two years early.

It gets even weirder. Voters whose senator has been set aside must go without any representation -- except for a Senate Rules Committee-appointed custodian -- while others could end up with double the number of senators to complain about.


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And that's before term limits are factored into the equation.

"Congratulations, you are now the eighth person in the state to understand this," Darren Chesin, chief consultant to the state Senate Committee on Elections, told a reporter -- tongue only slightly in cheek.

This happens every 10 years. But never before has the specter of a numerical swap inspired so much fear in the hearts of so many state senators.

Until now, politicians in the Legislature controlled the district boundaries to protect incumbents and limit to a handful of neighborhoods the transition effects of renumbering.

This time around, the numbering is in the hands of the voter-approved California Citizens Redistricting Commission, whose 14 members are redrawing the state's 177 congressional, Senate and Assembly districts without bias toward preserving numbers or borders.

The commission's draft maps unveiled this month reveal significant boundary shifts that dramatically boost the odds of numbering changes.

When mappers unveil the numbers is "probably not quite a day of reckoning," said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "That's too strong. But you can bet the state senators are nervous."

It's unclear how many district numbers will swap from even to odd or odd to even when the commission applies the new numbers.

But the panelists cannot rejigger the Senate numbers specifically for the benefit of incumbents. The law prohibits it.

Still, given the contraction of Senate districts in some areas and the expansion of territory in others, some renumbering is inevitable. The commission has yet to say publicly how much weight it will give the odd-even phenomenon as it works its way toward adopting final maps by Aug. 15.

In theory, an integer swap could hit the Bay Area particularly hard. Six of its nine state Senate districts are odd-numbered.

So, here's how the digit dance will play out in the Senate. (District numbers don't matter in the U.S. House of Representatives or the state Assembly, which have two-year terms.)

The commission must number districts contiguously and work north to south, although it has east-west wiggle room.

Remember that senators serve a maximum of two four-year terms, which means half of the body's 40 seats come up for election every two years. In 2012, only the odd districts will be on the ballot.

So, every odd senator not subject to term limits who pulls an even number will have to wait until 2014 to run for re-election. The senator is dubbed "deferred."

And it is not just the senator who is deferred.

The district's voters will have no senator for two years, although the Senate Rules Committee would assign an adjacent senator to handle constituent services. In other words, voters will have a senator but probably not one who cares very much.

In the reverse, voters and senators in even districts that turn odd earn the enviable title of "accelerated."

The "accelerated" senators in even-numbered districts, whose terms don't expire until 2014, continue to represent the voters in the old district for two years. The "accelerated" voters will also choose a new odd senator in 2012.

This means that during the transition period, "accelerated" voters living in the overlap zone within the old even and new odd districts will have two senators.

Let's go back to the San Francisco example, where the redistricting commission has proposed merging two Senate districts.

If the new solo San Francisco district receives an odd number, 3rd District Sen. Mark Leno can seek re-election. His is the fan club pushing the slogan, "Keep San Francisco odd!"

If it goes even, 8th District Sen. Leland Yee will continue to represent his old territory until he terms out in 2014. The constituents in the other half of the new even-numbered San Francisco district would have no senator -- except the Senate's assigned overseer -- until voters elect a new one in 2014.

And if Yee resigns -- he is running for mayor of San Francisco -- a special election would be held to fill the rest of the term for a seat that will disappear in 2014.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, anxious Democratic senators include Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, Loni Hancock of Berkeley and Lois Wolk of Davis.

Sens. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, and Elaine Alquist of Santa Clara, term out in 2012, so changes won't affect their long-term plans.

For DeSaulnier, Hancock and Wolk, all in their first terms, drawing an even digit is the end.

They would be out Jan. 1 and must wait until 2014 to run again unless they move into an odd district.

"This is not how I imagined democracy working," DeSaulnier said. "I figured if I wasn't in office, it was because I either lost an election or I had had enough, not because I failed to win the numbering lottery."

It gets even stranger for voters in the 10th District held by soon-to-be-termed-out state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro.

If the 10th becomes the 11th, for example, voters in 2012 will elect a senator to the newly drawn district.

But Corbett remains in office until her term expires in 2014, where she will continue to represent all the people in the old 10th District.

Areas of overlap between the old 10th and new 11th would have two senators.

And we call San Francisco odd.

Staff writer Tracey Kaplan contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, IBAbuzz.com/politics or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.