Redistricting and Voting Rights

A group of civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery,1965. ©1965 Bruce DavidsonEvery 10 years, the U.S. Census sets in motion a constitutionally mandated process of re-aligning voting districts to reflect population changes in federal, state, and local jurisdictions. California carried out its redistricting through a Citizens Commission for the first time (Galambos Malloy), but in most states, tried and true political in-fighting, followed by extensive legal challenges, is now underway (Rowe, Abdullah).

In California, where people of color are the new majority, African American communities were able to preserve their political position; Latino communities saw an increase of 10 districts with Latino majorities; and a new district with majority Asians was created. With redistricting for local jurisdictions starting up under the new California Voting Rights Act (which has more teeth than the federal legislation), organized communities of color stand to gain even greater electoral representation (Cedillo).

In places like Mississippi, African Americans and Latinos have made common cause to turn back the kind of legislative assault on immigrants seen in Arizona and Alabama (Eaton). In Ohio, a revitalized labor-community coalition won a referendum overturning the state government’s attacks on public employees (La Botz).

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A Commissioner’s Perspective on California’s Redistricting

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!

A Peek Into Hidden California
The Commission heard testimony from an incredibly diverse cross-section of the state that was important to how the maps were drawn. From Salinas to Culver City, from Hanford to San Bernardino, thousands of people attended 34 public hearings at which, over 2,700 individuals provided input. Tens of thousands of others put their thoughts in writing, maps, and even poetry.

As we traveled across the state, I was forced to confront the new socio-demographic reality of California. While Marysville claims significant Hmong and Latino populations in its Census, it was possible to spend 24 hours in the town’s prominent public places with minimal contact with either group. At a Latino community center in San Jose with deep roots in the Cesar Chavez legacy, aggressive Tea Party organizing chilled the air, cleared the room, and compelled us to call in extra security. In the Coachella Valley, speaker after speaker insisted the area was an exclusive resort community, but even a minor detour off the beaten path revealed migrant farm worker encampments. In the Antelope Valley, I remember the lone African American person at the Commission’s Input Hearing, who later explained to me that we had chosen a location on the side of the railroad tracks that many in his social circle knew to avoid.

Playing it Strictly by the Rules
When it came to drawing the districts, the Commission followed the criteria set forth in the Voters First Act—in ranked order: (1) We complied with the U.S. Constitution—one person, one vote; (2) The districts were designed to comply with the Voting Rights Act, ensuring an equal opportunity for minorities to elect a candidate of their choice; (3) We made the districts geographically contiguous; (4) Wherever possible, we kept cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of interest whole; (5) Our districts are compact and do not bypass nearby communities for more distant ones; (6) Where practical, without violating other criteria, we nested or blended so that Senate districts were comprised of two whole Assembly districts and Board of Equalization districts comprised of 10 Senate districts; (7) The Commission never considered incumbents, political candidates, or political parties when drawing districts.

In fact, current analysis shows scores of candidates drawn out of their districts or more than one incumbent within a district. The 2012 elections—with the combined impact of redistricting and the new top two primary system—may bring significant changes across the state and in the long run, create opportunities for new leadership.

The new political maps are superior to their predecessors from a standpoint of both process and outcome, which is “fair and effective” political representation. The public has never had a seat at the redistricting table before, or a chance to weigh in on the process at so many stages—before and after the draft visualizations. Naturally, public expectations have been high and there is some disappointment that individual requests were not realized—an impossibility in a geographically and demographically diverse state like California. As an Oaklander, I had to constantly challenge myself to make decisions as a “Californian” entrusted with balancing the interests of the entire state—not just my part of the universe. The process involved intense negotiations across party lines and the result, understandably, is a compromise. The new map is not aggressive on behalf of any one constituent group, nor is it one that any of us personally would have created, but it represents an equitable balance to voters across the state.

Court Finds Maps in Compliance
In keeping with past redistricting tradition, there has been litigation. Two groups filed suit against the Commission’s maps. But on October 26, the California Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the suits affirming that the Commission had followed the Constituition, the Voting Rights Act, and the Voters First Act. After failing in state court, one of the same groups filed litigation in U.S. Federal Court over the state Senate maps. Signatures for a ballot measure to overturn the state Senate maps were also submitted to the state and the verification process is currently underway. It is unclear whether it will qualify for the November 2012 ballot.

As I continue to travel around the state, one  thing is clear, the public has fully embraced this new redistricting process and now citizens are demanding the same level of transparency and public input at the county and city levels. I can only hope that California’s precedent-setting, citizen-led experiment in redistricting sets the standard for the nation in the decade ahead.

Connie Galambos Malloy is senior director of programs at Urban Habitat and publisher of RP&E. She also serves as a Commissioner with the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

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"The public has fully embraced this new redistricting process and now citizens are demanding the same level of transparency and public input at the county and city levels."

California Redistricting Preserves Black Voice in State Politics

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.”

Early in the process, a group of African Americans from Democratic Representative Maxine Waters’ district testified before the Commission. They were promptly accused of being Waters’ “political operatives” by one Republican commission member who, without offering any evidence to support this claim, urged the other commissioners to disregard their testimony. District residents of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities had testified that day, but this was the only group singled out for discrimination.

Hawthorne-by-the Beach
Other shenanigans included a declaration by the Mayor of Hawthorne that his landlocked city should be grouped with its more affluent coastal neighbors to the West. Such a grouping would have disturbed the delicate balance of the black population in Southeast Los Angeles County and dealt a drastic blow to black representation. The move was a direct attack on Rep. Waters’ district and not surprisingly, conservative members of the Commission ran with the bizarre “Hawthorne is a beach city” mantra.

Fortunately, a coalition of black leaders and community organizations came together early in the process to form the African American Redistricting Collaborative (AARC), which was able to anticipate the attacks, mobilize communities, and engage attorneys to provide a legal basis for our position.
Ultimately, all of the current black districts in California were preserved. Additionally, new State Senate and Assembly districts were formed where an African American candidate can run competitively. The Redistricting Commission listened to our collective voices and approved a final map that preserves black political representation.

Redistricting by Committee Risky For Blacks
As we celebrate these accomplishments, it is important to step back and reflect on what this victory was all about. Blacks typically side with issues of equality and have reliably provided the bedrock of progressive coalitions. Redistricting is an inherently progressive activity—if done honestly. The concept revolves around shifting power to reflect population concentrations.

We must not forget, however, that a majority of California voters supported Props 11 and 20, which authorized the creation of the Commission and tasked it—instead of the legislature—with redrawing congressional boundaries because of concerns over political corruption and influence. This has not been the experience, historically, from the perspective of African Americans, who have trusted their elected officials to do right by them. So, although we won this round, redistricting via a randomly appointed citizen’s commission—which, by default draws an intellectual crowd with technology access and resources—is a risky game at best for the increasingly dispersed black community. 

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Voting Rights are Local Rights

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.

The primary tool used in statewide redistricting is the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1964, which is concerned with matters, such as ballot languages, number and placement of polling locations, poll taxes, literacy tests, and discriminatory redistricting—to ensure that elections are conducted in a way that does not disenfranchise protected minorities. The courts have deemed illegal any electoral structures that deny minority groups their electoral choice, including the practice of creating districts by dividing up ethnic groups to preserve the status quo.

The VRA has resulted in greater numbers of minorities serving in the legislature and congress. Even where members of a protected class are not elected, it still provides for a stronger voice in their representation. Without access to congress and the state legislature we would not have achieved many of the civil rights gains of the past 50 years.

California Voting Rights Act Provides Strong Tools
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) was enacted in 2002 and focuses exclusively on the use of at-large election systems. As defined in the law, at-large systems include any election method other than the system where area voters select their representative in single member districts. If you find yourself voting in elections for more than one candidate, or voting for water board, school board, and council candidates in city-wide elections, you are in an at-large system, although most Californians probably are unaware of the system being used.

The at-large system is not an issue if there is no evidence that a sizeable ethnic group is losing their rights to representation. In the city of Santa Monica, for example, white voters are not voting significantly different from non-whites, so an at-large community college board election is unlikely to be subject to the CVRA. However, the system can pose a problem for the 131 Latino-majority, or the dozens of African American- or Asian-majority cities. A recent analysis of census data and elected boards by GrassrootsLab, a Sacramento consulting firm, shows that over a dozen of the state’s majority-Latino cities have all-white boards and 40 more have white-majority boards elected in at-large systems. Most, if not all of these cities will be forced to change to the single member district system to comply with the CVRA.

Moreover, a city, school board or other local elected board does not have to have a majority minority population to face scrutiny. Recent lawsuits show that local governments with ethnic population concentrations as low as 25 percent could face serious scrutiny under CVRA if they show little history of electing members of that population. There are approximately 1,000 such cities, school boards and other locally elected boards* in California.

To be successful, a CVRA claim has to meet three conditions: (i) an at-large election system, (ii) a history of racially polarized voting that can be shown using statistical methods, and (iii) the ability to remedy the situation by creating districts where the impacted group could influence the outcome of the elections.

The new “influence” standard is particularly important. Under federal law it requires the ability to create districts with a 50 percent concentration, but under state law, the population concentration can be as low as 25 percent, provided that it gives the ethnic group sufficient votes to “influence” the election of their representative.

Reason to Celebrate but Not Rest on Laurels
It took just one year for the social justice community to create 10 new majority minority legislative and congressional districts in 2011! But it would be a mistake for the leadership to rest on its laurels. In cities like San Jose and Stockton, counties like Los Angeles and San Diego, there are new opportunities to create advancements within the traditional redistricting; as also in hundreds of local governments that may have to convert under CVRA.

The social justice community has a major role to play in pushing their local governments to study the law and if applicable, to create new districts where disaffected minority populations can be in the majority, or influence voting outcomes. Many cities, school boards, water boards, and special districts are making changes voluntarily to avoid public criticism but others are requiring lawsuits. The county of San Mateo, the city of Compton, and the community colleges of Compton and Cerritos are among those being sued by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. But that may prove to be just the tip of the iceberg as more groups work to enforce the law.

Ten years from now, the benefits of generating local electoral opportunities for Asians, Latinos, and African Americans under the CVRA should swamp the 10 new legislative and congressional seats created by the Citizen’s Commission. In fact, the 10 new seats will have limited meaning without a pipeline of qualified, experienced, and empowered locally elected officials that can rise to those offices.

Senator Gil Cedillo is author of the California Dream Act and is known for his commitment to passing legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. He represents the 46th California State Assembly District.

*Earlier versions of this story omited the phrases in brackets.

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Over a dozen of the state’s majority-Latino cities have all-white boards and 40 more have white-majority boards elected in at-large systems. Most, if not all of these cities will be forced to change...

Power Shift in Chicago

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.

The Latino population, on the other hand, is surging—up 3 percent in Chicago and 32 percent statewide. Wary of being played against one another in a political game where poor people of all colors may be the true losers, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Arabs are working to strengthen their ties.
“This is really tough,” said Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and 45-year resident of Chicago. “The relationship between Latinos and African Americans will be quite challenging because Latinos will gain—as their numbers indicate—but you definitely can see patterns of development that don’t bode well for poor or working people in general.”

Census officials have acknowledged a possible undercount in Chicago, which echoes the experience of community activists who encountered deep distrust when they went door-to-door in black neighborhoods to encourage participation in the census. Sokoni Karanja, executive director of Centers for New Horizons, recalled feeling bewildered when people in his own neighborhood turned him away even after he had explained the political and financial importance of filling out census forms.

“There’s just a lot of mistrust,” he said. “People did not want to be involved. They would… not open the door. Some were cooperative, but in general there was a great deal of resistance.”

Self-defeating as that may seem, Karanja believes distrust of government is deeply embedded in the black community. “Census workers are gathering information that could go back to authorities, and in this community we have a long-taught fear of authority,” he explained. “The government is not a friend. Many of us come from the South where anything could be used against you, even if you were ‘in the right.’ It happens in Chicago, too.”
Organizers urged the the state legislature and the cirty council to keep communities of color together.

Public Housing Demolitions Spur Exodus

Other forces may have had an even greater impact on Chicago’s black population. Since 2000, the city has demolished 11,000 units of public housing in the Bronzeville area alone, promising to rebuild only a third of those units and giving many families vouchers for Section 8 housing outside city limits. Meanwhile, the price of real estate in the same neighborhood has more than doubled.

“Chicago is increasingly becoming a city that’s no longer affordable for working families,” said Jhatayn Travis, executive director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “People talk about wanting mixed-income housing but they aren’t building it—not enough, at least—so it does give you an idea of how the mayor and the business community are viewing this city.”

What really galls Travis and others interviewed for this story is a federal law that allows state prisoners to be counted where they are incarcerated, instead of in their home communities. It gives sparsely populated rural areas—where most prisons are located—far greater political power than is warranted by their actual numbers. For Chicago, it means about 23,000 incarcerated residents were not included in the city’s count, which saw an overall decline of 180,000 blacks—a significant problem when you consider that census data determines how $440 billion is allocated to communities for education and other programs.

“For representation, this is a really big deal,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nationally focused think tank in Northampton, Massachusettes. “It’s not so much what Chicago loses, but what other districts downstate gain. There is a very clear upstate-downstate tension in Illinois and prison-based gerrymandering just exacerbates that.”

Of course, the 23,000 incarcerated Chicagoans would not create an entire voting district. (Illinois requires each district to hold 108,000 people). But they could have an impact on the three predominantly African American congressional districts facing elimination.

“I’m not hopeful that any candidate of color can win election now,” said Stephen Alexander, a senior research fellow at DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center, who has studied the city’s political power structure for decades. “I don’t see how a Latino can win without crossover votes, and obviously, the way the system is set up, an African American cannot win without crossover votes—at least not a candidate from within the community.”

Coalition Lobbies for Census Redress

Mike Rodriguez of Enlace and Josina Morita of United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations testified at a redistricting hearing in May, 2011. Their organizations are part of a multiracial coalition for lobbying legislators to redress the prisoner count rules and propose a new voting district map that preserves the political power of shrinking minority communities.

“I don’t want to say that white communities gained in this census report,” said Morita, “but communities of color lost.”

Last March, Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Voting Rights Act (IVRA), which mandates that communities of color must be kept within a single district wherever possible. A trained demographer, Morita has created the maps and is now demanding for her coalition to have a say in the redistricting process. The IVRA—spearheaded by activists in Chinatown who saw their community of 50,000 splintered into four legislative districts—is a major weapon in Morita’s arsenal.

“Legislators say they don’t think that they can draw three black congressional districts but I’ve drawn them and I’m going to show them,” she said. “Under the Voting Rights Act, if you can prove that it can be done, it has to be. And considering the financial positions of states these days, the threat of suing them is very effective.”

As of November 2011, a Federal District Court was still reviewing the maps.

Claudia Rowe writes for Equal Voice Newspaper where this article was originally published.

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Redistricting 2011: Latinos Want Stronger Voice Based on 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
Busbee v. Smith, 549 F. Supp. 494 (1982), which is about the 1981 congressional redistricting plan adopted by Georgia’s state legislature and the DOJ’s refusal to grant it preclearance is a vivid example of how the VRA has protected African American voters during redistricting. The court upheld the DOJ’s action, finding that the legislature’s plan to split cohesive African American communities into separate districts diluted their voting power, while keeping white communities united throughout the state. The case served to highlight Georgia’s history of discrimination against African Americans in previous redistricting efforts and the rampant racism within the House Committee responsible for it. Committee Chair, Representative Joe Mack Wilson, decried the DOJ’s scrutiny with the remark: “[The] Justice Department is trying to make us draw nigger districts, and I don’t want to draw nigger districts.”

Using the VRA to Protect “Language” Minorities
In 1975, Congress amended the VRA to extend its protections to “language minorities”—essentially Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. In 2003, advocates had to invoke the VRA to protect Latino voters in Texas when Republicans, having gained control of the legislature, decided to conduct a mid-decade redistricting for partisan advantage. In LULAC v. Perry, 549 U.S. 399, 435 (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Texas legislature’s plan divided the heavily Latino areas of Webb County and Laredo city to protect an incumbent and required the district lines to be redrawn to comply with the VRA.

The dynamics of redistricting vary depending upon the formal requirements of each state’s redistricting processes, its political environment, and the composition of its population. As the 2011 redistricting proceeds, line drawers in each state are charting very different courses for the Latino community, which has made VRA compliance a top priority in its 2011 redistricting advocacy.
Following is a state-by-state look at the 2011 redistricting—through a Latino lens:

Latinos hoped that the state’s gain of four new congressional districts (the largest increase in the nation) would lead to greater opportunities for representation. But their optimism was tempered by their historic experience of redistricting in Texas, where persistent discrimination against Latinos has resulted in several successful VRA lawsuits.

Last July, rather than submit its redistricting plan to the DOJ for preclearance, the Texas legislature decided to file it in federal court. The DOJ countered with its own filing in the court, claiming that the legislature’s congressional and House redistricting plans fail to comply with the VRA. Now Latino civil rights advocates have brought a lawsuit, which argues that the legislature should have created additional Latino majority congressional districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Harris County, and the southern and western parts of the state. The lawsuit also challenges redistricting plans for the Texas House of Representatives on the grounds that it dilutes Latino voting strength. The Texas redistricting preclearance lawsuit will continue in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, where a three-judge panel will make the final decision on VRA compliance.

In Nevada, where Latino growth helped the state gain an additional Congressional seat, fair representation for the Latino community is at the core of the redistricting impasse between Republican Governor Brian Sandoval and the Democratic legislature. Sandoval vetoed plans submitted by the legislature twice, on the grounds that they do not create a congressional district with a large enough Latino population to enable them to elect the candidate of their choice. But the Democratic legislature and some Latino advocates believe that the plans are more advantageous to Latinos because they will be able to choose representatives more effectively if they can influence the outcome of the election within a wider spread of Congressional districts. Other Latino advocates, however, believe that the Governor’s congressional plan does a better job of uniting Latino voters.
As yet, no final redistricting plans are in place in Nevada but several lawsuits have been filed and the new districts will likely be determined by the courts.

Latinos are at the center of a tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats in Arizona, where Latino population growth helped the state gain an additional congressional district. The state’s redistricting plan will undergo special scrutiny because it is subject to the requirements of Section 5 of the VRA. Although redistricting has just begun, there is already an intense public debate about the value of VRA compliance. Under Arizona state law, redistricting plans must promote competitive elections where both Republicans and Democrats have an equal opportunity to be elected in a single district. However, there is significant tension between creating competitive districts and complying with the VRA, which requires districts to unify communities that share similar demographic characteristics and voting patterns. Since Arizona Latinos are more likely to register as Democrats (51 percent) than as Republicans (17 percent), districts that unite Latinos with shared voting patterns may not be competitive in general elections, although many districts have very competitive party primary races.

Some Arizona groups are critical of the VRA and are advocating for it to be a lower priority than partisan competitiveness in the state’s redistricting. Late last August, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Section 5 of the VRA. In light of Arizona’s recent history of enacting anti-Latino and anti-immigrant legislation, Latinos in the state will need to actively fight back to protect Latino voting rights during the redistricting process.

Following a gain of two congressional districts in the state owing to Latino population growth, Latino civil rights groups are advocating for a Central Florida congressional district where much of the state’s population increase occurred. As it proceeds with redistricting, the Florida legislature must apply new redistricting criteria that voters added to the state Constitution through ballot measures in the November 2010 elections. The controversial new criteria prohibit the legislature from drawing districts with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent. Although the purpose of this prohibition is to prevent unfair partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection, some civil rights advocates are concerned that it might impair the legislature’s ability to draw VRA-compliant districts.

Latinos were responsible for 90 percent of the state’s population growth in the last decade, which prevented the state from losing a congressional seat. For the first time, a Citizens Redistricting Commission drew the lines for California’s congressional and state districts. Latinos were actively engaged in community mobilization and advocacy efforts to ensure that the divisions would provide greater Latino electoral opportunities. Though the Commission did draw two new strongly Latino congressional districts in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and the San Diego/Imperial County areas, advocates believe that the Commission’s State Senate map will severely diminish fair opportunities for Latino representation and that an additional strong Latino congressional district should have been drawn in the state’s Central Valley. Latino voting rights advocates are reviewing the map to determine whether a VRA suit is warranted.

New York
The state lost two congressional districts through reapportionment and must eliminate them during redistricting. However, Latino population growth helped prevent the state from incurring a greater loss. During the last decade, the Latino population grew by 19 percent, while the non-Latino population actually declined by 1 percent. Advocates are working to ensure that the Latino voice remains strong even with the elimination of two districts, particularly in New York City.

Latinos and the Future of American Democracy
Latinos throughout the nation have recognized the critical importance of the 2011 redistricting cycle and actively worked to shape the drawing process. Groups, such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and LatinoJustice PRLDEF have conducted extensive efforts to mobilize the community to testify at redistricting hearings. Community members have gone before state legislatures and commissions to talk about their neighborhood concerns and the common issues that unite them. Latino voting rights organizations have submitted maps and initiated legal challenges.

Ultimately, decisions yet to be made by state legislatures, redistricting commissions, or courts will determine whether Latinos fully gain opportunities for increased representation in the 2011 redistricting cycle. Latinos are America’s second largest population group, and the nation’s prosperity and well-being depend on the strength of this community. It is therefore critical that Latinos choose elected representatives who can fashion policy solutions that address their community’s concerns.

Compliance with the VRA during redistricting will help the nation leave behind its legacy of discrimination against Latinos, ensure an accountable democracy, and provide all Americans with leadership that will help the nation surmount its social and economic challenges. If the lines drawn during the 2011 redistricting provide opportunities for fair Latino representation, they will also become a roadmap for a stronger and more vibrant American democracy.

Arturo Vargas serves as executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund, an affiliated national nonprofit organization that strengthens American democracy by promoting the full participation of Latinos in civic life.

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GOP’s Redistricting Plans Impede Latino Representation in Texas

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.

In Nueces County, which has three Latino-dominant House districts, the legislature's plan eliminated the smallest one, packing those voters into other districts. Such voter dilution tactics can violate Sections II and V of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), says Figueroa. States must seek permission from the Department of Justice (DOJ) before changing voting procedures or district maps—especially if the changes make voting conditions worse for groups covered by the statute. The DOJ has ruled that Texas can move forward with its senate and state board of education maps, but has not granted permission to move on the congressional map. Texas is challenging the ruling, setting the stage for yet another acrimonious chapter in the state's redistricting history.

Caroll Robinson, a law professor at Texas Southern University, says that the goal of the Texas Anglo-Republican dominated political system is to hold the status quo, which is consistent with the state's Confederate-era history of obstructing minority rights. Even the DOJ-approved plans for the state senate and board of education, upon close examination, are weighted toward that objective. But, Robinson contends, minorities need to get out of their silos and find means to cooperate to achieve parity in political empowerment.

His vision is shared by Rogene G. Calvert, director of the Texas Asian American Redistricting Initiative. Although the Asian American community is still small, under the VRA, they are a “community of interest,” with shared languages and cultural affinities. And they have achieved electoral success at the city council level in Houston by working with other ethnic communities. “Coalition politics is going to be the wave of the future,” Calvert says, “where we minorities work together more, so that we can elect candidates of our choice.”

What makes coalition politics critical is that housing patterns are changing. As communities become more integrated and ethnic populations more diffuse, it will be difficult to achieve the 50 percent concentration required to create a district that reflects a group’s numerical dominance. But the goal, Robinson points out, is to provide communities with the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, not necessarily a candidate from their own ethnic group.

“Demographics [are] on our side,” says Robinson. “Somewhere between now and mid-decade, if we do the things we need to do in terms of voter participation, voter education, voter registration, we have the ability to win some of these districts outright—and redistricting will take care of itself.”

Khalil Abdullah is a staff writer/editor for New America Media where he also helps facilitate The Beat Within (

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New Laws Target Right to Vote in 12 States

According to a new report, millions of voters may be denied the right to vote under new laws adopted in a dozen states. The study, released last August by the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, says that new voting laws regarding (1) photo identification requirements, (2) elimination of same day voter registrations, (3) proof of citizenship requirements to register to vote, (4) rule changes for voter registration drives, (5) reduction in early voting days, and (6) restoration of voting rights to convicted felons will make voting harder for over five million people in the 2012 election.

The Center points to a partisan divide on the laws, noting that they were mostly generated from Republican-controlled state legislatures and signed by Republican governors. The only exceptions are the Democratic-controlled legislatures of Rhode Island (which has an Independent governor) and West Virginia (which has a Democratic acting governor).

The report also projects that the new laws will have the greatest impact on minority voters because African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to register to vote during voter registration drives in Florida, and the new photo identification requirements in Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin would exclude up to 3.2 million citizens, mostly minorities, who do not have government-issued photo IDs. Alabama and Kansas require new voters to present proof of U.S. citizenship at the voting booth, while Tennessee requires new voters who have been identified in a database as potential non-citizens to submit proof of citizenship.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) had made the proof of citizenship and photo ID proposals the key elements of his platform during his 2010 campaign. Last May, he told the Wichita Eagle that while he was pleased that the two proposals had passed, he wanted to see the state’s election laws made stricter by giving his office power to prosecute voter fraud. Kobach’s opponents argue that the laws will suppress voter participation in Kansas.

New laws regarding voter registration drives in Florida and Kansas have made it increasingly difficult to register to vote, the report states. The Florida law, signed last May by Governor Rick Scott (R), requires third parties conducting voter registration drives to turn in all forms within 48 hours of completion with the date and time of completion noted on the forms, along with a tracking code for the organization. It also calls for monthly reports on voter registration drives to be submitted to the state election authorities.

Also according to the report, Ohio has eliminated voter registration during the state’s week-long early voting period, while Maine passed a law eliminating voter registration on election day. (This law was struck down on November 8, 2011, by a referendum put on the ballot by grassroots groups.) The states of Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have also adopted laws reducing local early voting periods as well. But the battle for the right to vote has just begun.

“The book isn’t closed for 2012,” says Wendy Weiser, co-author of the report. “We are seeing push back… and voter-led efforts in a variety of states. We do anticipate that even though there might be changes, this will have a significantly negative impact on voters in 2012.”  

John Celock is state politics reporter and Patch liaison for The Huffington Post.

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Ohio Unions Turn Back Attack on Public Workers

Ohio’s unions won big in the November 2011 election when they overturned Senate Bill 5 by a 61 to 39 margin, handing Republican Governor John Kasich a defeat and continuing labor’s recent ascending trajectory. The unions’ success in Ohio suggests that Kasich may be a one-term governor, that Republican control of the state legislature may be overturned next year, and that right-wing, anti-union governors like Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin are an endangered species—and one that voters plan to make extinct.

Senate Bill 5 was voted up soon after Kasich took office in January. Legislators passed it in March, despite demonstrations by thousands of public employees and private sector workers at the capitol in Columbus. SB5 affected about 400,000 public employees, limiting their ability to bargain collectively, collect dues, and strike. The law also established “pay for performance” and required workers to pay 15 percent of their health care. Workers were furious.

Ohio unions, working closely with the Democratic Party, acted quickly to take advantage of the state’s referendum law, eventually collecting a record 1.29 million signatures. The state then certified 915,456 signatures—another record—putting the measure on the ballot.

The We Are Ohio coalition spent $30 million, including big investments from national unions, on a campaign that involved thousands of members from AFSCME, teachers’ unions, firefighters, and many other public and private sector unions who canvassed neighborhoods and phoned voters. Teachers’ unions in Ohio levied additional dues to help pay for the campaign.

Interestingly, the same Ohio voters who saved collective bargaining for state workers also overwhelmingly approved Issue 3, aimed at limiting President Barack Obama’s health care program. Issue 3 states that no federal state or local law could compel any person or employer to participate in a health care system. This question is now before the courts.

Connect the Dots

The success in Ohio forms part of labor’s recent ascending trajectory—the Wisconsin labor protests in February and March; the Occupy phenomenon that allied with unions and spread from Wall Street nationwide; and the Occupy Oakland march that shut down the port on November 2, 2011. Even if each struggle has not resulted in victory, the temperature is rising.

The union movement, rallying after 30 years on its heels, is testing its strength in the streets and in the political arena. The Democratic Party is anxious to channel the new energy, both in the institutional union form and in the new, more amorphous movement form, into the 2012 elections.
The split vote in Ohio on Issues 2 and 3, and the difference between the unions on the one hand and the Occupy movement on the other, suggests that getting voters to the polls in 2012, and getting them to follow the lead of the AFL-CIO/Democratic Party alliance will not be simple. In some parts of Ohio the unions kept Occupy at a distance, afraid that allying with radicals would cost them middle-ground votes on Issue 2. In other parts, like Cleveland, the occupiers backed the union position.

As we connect the dots from Madison to Oakland to Ohio, we wonder where the next dot will be. The interesting question is: how will the next uprising affect politics?

Dan La Botz is a teacher in Cincinnati and active in the Occupy movement. He is the author of A Troublemaker’s Handbook.

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