Racial and Gender Justice
In July 2011, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) was arrested during a demonstration in Washington, DC, to protest President Obama’s refusal to use his executive powers to halt deportations of the undocumented. Gutierrez’ arrest came only two days after Obama had addressed a conference of the National Council of La Raza, reminding attendees that he was bound to “uphold the laws on the books,” conveniently forgetting the history of the civil rights struggle that had made his presidency possible.
With over 392,000 deportations in 2010, more than in any of the Bush years, many activists fear a repeat of the notorious “Repatriation” campaign of the 1930s and the infamous Operation Wetback of 1954, both of which resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Latinos. But a few things are different this time around.
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.
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.”