Phoenix - Minorities, and Latinos in particular, have a lot at stake in Arizona’s ongoing redistricting process, which has again thrust the state into the center of a national debate over immigration, voting rights, and the political power of minority communities.
Since 2000, Arizona’s population grew by some 26 percent, according to the latest census figures from last year. Latinos accounted for nearly 40 percent of the increase, though they remain a relatively insignificant presence within the state Legislature. Advocates say that it is precisely at the state level where Latinos stand to win or lose the most.
“This process will determine the distribution of power for the next 10 years,” said Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a non-profit organization that works to promote electoral justice.
Brown was part of a panel of ethnic media members organized by New America Media to discuss the impact of the redistricting process and what is at stake for Latinos and other minority groups.
In 2000, Arizona voters created the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), composed of two Republicans, two Democrats and an Independent. The commission is charged with redrawing political maps every 10 years, and with the recent demographic shifts, the decision was made to add a ninth district to the eight that currently exist. A 30-day public comment period was opened earlier this month seeking input on draft maps put forward by the commission. Residents have until Nov. 5 to make their voices heard.
IRC Vice President and Commissioner José Herrera said during the panel discussion that public opinion would be considered when drawing up the final map. He also dismissed criticisms coming from both Republicans and Democrats, who accuse each other of hijacking the process for political gain.
That became clear when the state’s Republicans lined up to denounce the draft version of the map, led by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who called them “a travesty” and "gerrymandering at its worst.” Arizona currently has two solidly Republican districts, one Democrat, and three acknowledged by the commission as competitive.
Commissioners begin with a grid-like map of the state that they then alter to create districts with equal numbers of residents. The IRC is required to abide by the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects the influence of minority voters through the creation of “minority-majority” districts. Members are also expected to create competitive districts, where either a Democrat or Republican stands a chance to win.
How to distribute the growth of Latinos so as to empower this sector and create more minority-majority districts is a key question, explained John Loredo, a political analyst and former minority Democratic leader at the state Legislature.
Loredo said that he is concerned Hispanic voters may not gain as much political clout due to a push by Democrats for more competitive districts, which in his view could dilute the Latino vote.
“There has to be a way for both competitive districts and minority voting rights to peacefully coexist,” said Loredo, who also noted that Latino voters are responsible for most of the growth in Democratic Party membership in the last few years.
“You got the Democratic Party that is desperately trying to low ball Latino numbers, because that gives them the ability to cut Latinos into other districts that makes them more competitive from a Democratic point of view,” he said in an interview after the forum.
Loredo argues the focus should first be to establish minority-majority districts that empower Latinos before trying to create competitive districts, but not the other way around. “When politicians realize that we’re a valuable swing vote, they will start to court our vote.”
As an example, he cites the current recall election against Senator Russell Pearce, the architect of SB 1070, which preceded a slew of anti-immigrant legislation appearing in states across the country. While Latinos are only a small fraction of registered voters, they are perceived as an important swing vote that could shift the outcome of the election in favor of Pearce’s opponent, Jerry Lewis.
Some minority groups say the current redistricting maps look favorable.
Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said during the panel that this time around they are “happy to move with the maps presented.” Navajos, who make up 4.8 percent of the population, have long struggled to defend their cultural integrity when it comes to redistricting.
Gorman agreed that competitiveness is not as significant as ensuring that communities of interest are preserved and that the Voting Rights Act is respected.
Arizona has a long history of discrimination against minorities, said Oscar Tillman, president of Maricopa County’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Tillman pointed to a pending lawsuit filed by the Arizona Attorney General, Tom Horne, who is seeking to overturn of the Voting Rights Act. (A similar suit is also pending in Alabama.)
He also noted that regulations requiring voters to show ID at the polls remain an obstacle for minorities, as do attempts to include prison populations in districts where detention centers are located, since detainees are unable to vote.
On Tuesday, a group of Republican legislators announced the creation of the Joint Legislative Committee on Redistricting that would make recommendations to the IRC.
“The primary responsibility of the IRC is to protect communities of interest and they have failed to do that,” said Senate President Russell Pearce in a written statement. “In far too many places neighborhoods that have nothing in common have been drawn into the same district.”
What concerns Pearce and other Republican legislators is the creation of districts in which they will have to face other incumbents.
Pearce is facing a recall election Nov. 8 in District 18. But even if he manages to keep his job under the proposed redistricting map, Pearce will end up in the same district as Republican Rich Crandall, a critic of Pearce’s harsh anti-immigrant stance.
Frustrations with the IRC are not limited to one side of the aisle, however, a sign for some that the commission is doing its job.
“The legislative draft map adopted today by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission lacks competitive districts and is a giant step backward, as drawn. Without more competition, extremists will continue to get elected and will discourage Independent voters from having any say in Arizona's future,” said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
Taking a more positive view, Linda Brown with Arizona Advocacy Network said having an independent commission allows ordinary citizens to participate in a process traditionally dominated by vested political interests. She added that political parties often use “communities of color as a smoke screen” to consolidate power.
Given its history of disenfranchising minority voters, Arizona is among nine states that must receive pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making any changes to election laws, including redistricting.
“It is important for voters of color to get involved in the [redistricting] process,” said Brown. “This gives us an opportunity because the DOJ will look at it."