Los Angeles - When the 2010 Census results came in, Latinos seemed poised to exert more political influence in the U.S. than ever before. In the past 10 years, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, more than quadruple the 9.7 percent growth rate for the country overall.
But as states from California to Nevada to Colorado and Texas map out new electoral districts—a once-a-decade process mandated by the U.S. Constitution to ensure that political boundaries reflect demographic shifts—Hispanics are being shortchanged, advocates argue. Although the Latino population surged by 15.2 million nationwide, its political power—as measured by the number of voting districts in which Hispanics are the majority—has remained stagnant in many states or even regressed.
Party politics and incumbents desperate to hold onto their seats are largely to blame, Latino advocates and analysts say.
“If tradition is a guide, this is a structure and process that favors incumbents,” says Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund). “They’re going to do their best to counter every little change in the status quo. When you juxtapose that with rapid Latino growth, the hardest thing is creating maps that reflect the geography and housing patterns of the people.”
“Redistricting almost always comes down to the art the self-preservation,” adds political consultant Andres Ramirez, president of the Las Vegas–based Ramirez Group. Racial discrimination is not a major reason for this year’s slow gains, despite what many people may think, he adds. “Generally, there are too many other factors at play for racism to matter in the process.”
But where Latinos are concerned, it can be hard to untangle racial discrimination from partisan politics. “Line drawers assume that Latinos vote Democrat,” says Rosalind Gold, director of policy, research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. “[But] We know that Latinos will vote for whichever political party addresses the issues of concern to them.”
Texas Map Among the “Worst”
Advocates point to Texas, the fastest-growing state in the country, as the prime example of how Latinos have been shortchanged. Although Latinos drove 65 percent of the state’s growth over the past decade and now make up 37 percent of the population, the GOP-dominated Legislature only drew one of the four new congressional districts to favor Latino candidates. Of the 36 congressional seats the state now claims, just 19 percent are Latino “opportunity districts”—where Hispanics stand a good chance of electing their candidates of choice.
The heavily Democratic city of Austin has been parceled out into five congressional districts, versus three districts before the current remapping. The sole district in the city where a Democrat will likely win election to Congress is also the only one with a concentration of Hispanics.
Meanwhile, in the maps for the state House of Representatives, Latinos actually lose two opportunity districts. Gold calls the Texas redistricting maps among the “worst” she’s seen.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, rejecting the GOP-drawn congressional and state House maps and setting up yet another contentious legal battle. In 2001 and 2006, the federal courts redrew Texas’s maps to ensure that they complied with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
This spring, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus filed a lawsuit accusing the Legislature of intentionally diluting the voting strength of Latinos and blacks. The trial in that suit, which was consolidated with nearly a dozen other redistricting challenges, wrapped up in San Antonio last week.
Because of the state's history of racial discrimination, any electorial map—congressional, legislative, or local—must win approval from the DOJ before taking effect. Fifteen other states must also have their redistricting plans cleared by the federal government.
“There needs to be less focus on partisanship and more focus on the Voting Rights Act,” says Luis Figueroa, legislative attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Southwest regional office.
Figueroa asserts that partisan politics among Texas Republicans and Democrats alike contributed to dilution of Latino political strength in the 2011 maps. “Both parties placed a higher value on incumbency than the creation of Latino opportunity districts,” he says.
But racism also played a role, argues Tanya Aguilar Garduño of the San Antonio-based Southwest Workers Union, which has worked with the Texas Latino Redistricting Task Force. “The people who are controlling the process are predominantly white, so there’s a power imbalance.”
But she adds, “The racism goes beyond party lines. As Latinos, we can elect the candidate of our choice, but that’s not necessarily a Latino.” She notes that Democratic candidates up for election in Latino-majority districts are frequently white.
California-Style Reform Not Much Better
Is putting an independent panel in charge of redistricting, as California did for the first time this year, the answer? Figueroa doesn’t think so. He argues that whether an independent panel or a state legislature leads redistricting, the key will remain compliance with the VRA. During redistricting, “We’ve seen independent panels slice Latinos up and pack Latinos in,” he says.
Indeed, the new California Citizens Redistricting Commssion faced criticism for not creating more Latino-majority districts in the maps it approved in August. Latino civil rights groups, including MALDEF and NALEO, have argued that the commission weakened Latino voting power in state Senate districts in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire and the San Fernando Valley and slashed a majority Latino district in Orange County. The commission drew just one Latino-majority Assembly district and congressional district in the Central Valley.
“We think the commission could have done a better job with all of the concerns we raised,” Gold says. The state’s redistricting committee didn’t have a good understanding of the VRA, she adds.
She acknowledges, however, that Latinos have progress to make before they become full participants in the electoral process. That’s because voters in the U.S. tend to be older, relatively affluent and highly educated, while the Latino community skews younger, less affluent and less educated than the white population. Still, the share of Latino voters is growing. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of Hispanic voters rose to 50 percent in 2008, from 47 percent in 2004.
“Packing” Latinos in Nevada
In Nevada, where Latinos now make up more than a quarter of the population, the redistricting process came to a halt in June after Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature could not agree on a plan. Democrats accused Republicans of diluting the voting power of minorities by “packing” them into a limited number of districts. Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of weakening the Latino vote by spreading out minority populations across districts.
Because Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval refused to call a special session to complete the mapping process, a state judge appointed a panel of three special masters to draw the lines. Political consultant Ramirez, who also chairs the Nevada Latino Redistricting Coalition, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the result will be fair to Latinos.
“When you look at what has driven the growth of Nevada, 46 percent of it was due to growth in the Latino population,” Ramirez says. “We’re fairly confident that no matter how the lines are drawn, whether there’s a district that’s 40 or 50 percent Latino, it will still be large enough for this community to elect their candidate of choice.”
But Vicenta Montoya, of Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus in Las Vegas, isn’t nearly as optimistic. She’s concerned that the special masters could divide Latino “communities of interest”—such as tourism workers along the Las Vegas Strip—or cram Latinos into one “mega” district, as Nevada Republicans tried to do with Latinos and blacks. “The Republican map, which kind of gerrymandered everything, …[diminishes] the power of the Latino community and the black community,” she says.
Montoya predicts that politicians and the public alike will be unhappy with the special masters’ plan, and she anticipates a court challenge. But she’d be happy to be proven wrong. “I may be amazed, and they’ll come up with something that’s absolutely stellar.”
Conflict in Colorado and Arizona
In nearby Colorado, the Legislature failed earlier this year to come to a consensus on a new congressional map. This led both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to file legal challenges in federal court in Denver, which pro-Latino groups have joined.
Hispanics accounted for more than 41 percent of Colorado’s growth during the past decade, and advocates are seeking to protect their electoral rights in the Denver area, Morgan and Weld counties, and southern Colorado.
In Arizona, Hispanics also drove nearly half of the state’s population growth, resulting in one new congressional seat. As the state’s redistricting commission, created by voters in 2000, updates electoral lines, Democrats are pushing for the state’s new 9th Congressional district to be placed in an area with a high concentration of Latinos.
Republicans, however, have accused the commission, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent chairwoman, Colleen Mathis, of liberal bias, in part because Mathis’s husband worked on a Democratic state lawmaker’s campaign. Some conservatives have demanded her ouster and others have called for a special election to scrap the commission process and return redistricting authority to the Legislature.
Arizona Republicans take particular issue with the panel’s choice of a mapping consultant that teamed up with the Obama campaign in 2008 and they are investigating whether open -meeting laws were breached. Attorney Gen. Tom Horne has also filed a lawsuit opposing the VRA mandate that the federal government approve Arizona’s redistricting maps because of its history of discriminating against Latinos. The federal government has rejected the state’s last three map plans.
How Latinos fare in the redistricting process is of particular concern given the recent passage of harsh anti-immigrant legislation by the state. “If anything, [laws like SB 1070 have] helped galvanize Latinos” and increase interest in the redistricting process, Gold says.
Backlash at the Ballot Box?
Ramirez says that lawmakers who fail to advocate for the Latino community in the redistricting process will feel the weight of that decision at the ballot box next year.
After all the legal challenges, “By the time the 2012 election rolls around, Latinos will know very clearly where each party and candidate stands on redistricting and expanding electoral opportunities for Latinos,” he says. “Latinos are likely to punish candidates opposed to their efforts in key districts.”
The GOP doesn’t fear the wrath of the Latino electorate because it can still win campaigns without support from the majority of Hispanic voters, Ramirez says. Many Republicans don’t live in districts with high enough percentages of Latinos to affect their electoral outcomes, he adds. “And they want to keep it that way by packing as many Latinos into as few districts as possible.”
Still, Gold argues that the GOP cannot afford to totally alienate Latinos—and Democrats can’t risk taking these voters for granted.
“Neither political party can win without a strategy to effectively reach Latinos and the issues of concern to them,” she says.