Whether Little Tokyo will remain in the 9th Council District or Koreatown will be united into one district will depend on the redrawn map of the Los Angeles City Council. A 21-member citizens commission is seeking input from the public and Asian Pacific Islanders are urged to get involved.
Several members of the Redistricting Commission attended a press conference on Wednesday in Little Tokyo, including Arturo Vargas, chair of the redistricting commission, and commissioners Robert Ahn, Helen B. Kim and David Roberts.
“Redistricting means many things, it means empowerment and having the opportunity to have an equal voice and equal representation,” said Kim, an attorney and board member of the Korean American Coalition.
The surge in Latino population has made it possible for Texas, the state with the second largest Congressional block, to add four new seats to its current total of 32. Florida, too, gets two additional seats for the same reason. But it will not be easy for Latinos to turn this into political clout.
According to Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), bad case law requires ethnic communities to demonstrate a critical mass of voting age population—a high hurdle to cross in Texas where a large percentage of the Latino community is under the age of 18. “We also have a significant non-citizen population,” Figueroa points out.
“We don't talk about that enough in the media,” says Greg Wyeth, senior redistricting initiative consultant at Outreach Strategists. The public discourse on low Latino voter turnout usually turns into a blame game rather than a dispassionate analysis of the numbers.
Latinos throughout the nation eagerly anticipated the 2011 redistricting cycle. Aware that their numbers had increased dramatically during the last decade, they hoped that redistricting would provide a crucial opportunity to ensure fairer representation for them and give them a stronger voice in the nation’s democracy.
The release of 2010 Census data not only confirmed the increase in Latino population since 2000, it also revealed that Latinos had fueled overall population growth in many states. Gains in Congressional seats owing to reapportionment could be directly linked to gains in the Latino population. Even among states that did not gain seats, the Latino explosion either helped retain existing seats or prevented greater losses. (See Table 1).
Voter Rights Act Invoked to Ensure Fairness
The Latino community approached the 2011 redistricting fully aware that they may need to enforce compliance with one of the nation’s most powerful protections against discriminatory electoral practices, i.e. the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), enacted by Congress during the civil rights era. Initially, the Act primarily protected African Americans from discrimination in voting, forbidding such practices as literacy requirements and poll taxes. Section 2 of the VRA, however, protects underrepresented populations from discriminatory voting and election practices nationwide. And Section 5 mandates that states with a history of discrimination against underrepresented groups submit their redistricting plans to either the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal district court for “preclearance.” The DOJ or the courts can block the redistricting if it diminishes electoral opportunities for underrepresented voters
To social justice advocates, redistricting is a familiar lever for causing political change. While it sparks the imagination of a certain breed of political junky, in most people it generates something akin to math anxiety.
The rewards of engaging in the redistricting process can be plainly seen in what was achieved in California this year with the first truly open and public Commission drawing the state’s legislative and congressional lines. Social justice groups were able to shape the Commission, drive the discussion, and create outcomes that will have ramifications for the next decade. Their success can be measured in the number of majority minority districts created.
According to analysis by Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners, the old map provided for 19 majority minority Latino districts, whereas the new map provides for 29, and one that is over 50 percent Asian. In addition, the Commission preserved several districts that, while not majority minority black, are likely to continue electing representatives from that community. “These lines provide a 20-year correction—finally reflecting the true electoral strength of minority communities,” says Mitchell.
For years, political pundits and sectors of the media have reported with barely contained glee on the supposed decline of California’s black population. There has been much speculation about how the demographic changes will lead to a decline in black political leadership. Proponents of this viewpoint saw this year’s redistricting process as a golden opportunity to spin the narrative into permanent changes in political boundaries that would lead to the disenfranchisement of black voters. If these black districts were eliminated, it would be nearly impossible to get them back.
The blows came from all directions. The media led with sensational predictions about African Americans ending up losers in the process. The Los Angeles Times quoted a member of the Redistricting Commission saying, “It’s very hard for people to accept changing demographics.” The message between the lines being, “Their time is over.”
When Californians voted to create the nation’s first independent Citizens Redistricting Commission charged with drawing Assembly, Senate, Board of Equalization, and Congressional districts, it was with the hope of ending the partisan gerrymandering of the past. Speaking as one of the 14 Commissioners, I believe we have delivered on that promise—against all odds.
We had less than eight months to bring 14 strangers from diverse backgrounds together, hire staff and consultants, develop and conduct an extensive public outreach process, draw 177 individual district maps that incorporated complex legal and technical analysis, compose an extensive narrative report, and certify the maps with a multipartisan vote. And it was done—on time and under budget. The maps were produced through a transparent process: deliberations were conducted and decisions about boundaries made in public, streamed live with transcripts, and archived online. And although the process was called redistricting, it really should have been called “districting” because the Commission consciously chose not to tweak existing districts with their flawed political baggage, but to start from scratch using its constitutionally approved criteria.
As the youngest Commissioner and one of only two with small children, the public service commitment was grueling beyond my wildest imagination. I can remember one Tuesday morning when I woke up, packed my one-year-old son in the car, and drove five hours to a public hearing that lasted until midnight. The next day, I woke up and drove three hours, and did it all over again. And then again. While most Commissioners spent their daily stipend on sightseeing, I spent it on childcare at the hands of strangers!
Chicago, one of the most populous, politically important cities in the country, has watched its African American population steadily ebb over the last decade, to a point where low-income residents say they no longer recognize the city as a stronghold of working families.
First, there was the demolition of public housing and ongoing gentrification efforts—both of which pushed blacks to the suburbs. Now census figures show that the city’s black population has plummeted 17 percent since 2000. Community activists charge the Census Bureau with undercounting blacks by the thousands and say it is partly to blame for the fact that blacks in the Windy City now stand to lose political representation at the federal, state, and local levels.