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Opinion: Redistricting is turning the heat up on Latinos, other minorities

The state’s 2011 redistricting process reached a milestone in late May when the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission completed accepting public testimony before it releases drafts of new lines for the state’s Assembly, Senate and congressional districts.  The final hearing, which included formal presentations by civil rights organizations, was preceded by a series of public hearings throughout the state, many of which were unevenly attended.

This new redistricting process, in which the task of redrawing the lines was removed from the state Legislature by Propositions 11 and 20 and placed in the hands of a 14-member commission, is intended to eliminate incumbent protection interests and partisan politics.  Based on the hostility exhibited at several hearings toward some Latinos and other minorities, and the line of questioning of the civil rights organizations by some of the commissioners at the final hearing, it appears that this redistricting process may become mired in a different kind of politics.  The public should take note.

The commission has been hampered in its work by an insufficient budget.  As a result, the commission conducted only limited public outreach of its own, relying on scant coverage by the news media and the outreach by a handful of organizations to get the word out to traditionally underrepresented communities.   Not surprisingly, the public testimony has been imbalanced, with traditionally engaged voters actively participating, and many underrepresented communities relying on the efforts of statewide and national organizations to represent their interests.

At several hearings, Latino community leaders in attendance often bore the brunt of the animus from those who objected to the Commission’s legal mandate to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA).  The VRA prohibits the vote dilution of Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and other protected voters, and requires that districts be created where these groups can comprise the majority of voters.  Vote dilution occurs by over-concentrating or fragmenting politically cohesive and geographically compact minority communities.  The commission is required to make VRA compliance the second most important criterion it employs, second only to equalizing population among the districts.

Complying with the VRA means that districts cannot always be drawn in simple geometric, compact shapes, and that city and county lines sometimes must be split.  The authors of Proposition 11 understood this, which is why they gave higher priority to complying with the VRA than maintaining together other communities of interest, and respecting political and geographic boundaries, which are lesser ranked criteria.  This, however, has engendered the anger of some in the public, which has seemed to influence at least some of the commissioners.

At the late May hearing, some commissioners repeatedly questioned the representative from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, criticizing some of the VRA districts drawn by MALDEF because they included “fingers” and split county lines in some places.  These are districts in which a majority of the citizen voting age population is Latino, thus offering Latinos the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.  MALDEF presented an Assembly map with 17 such districts, a senate map with nine and a congressional map with 11.

Several commissioners expressed doubt about the Latino civil rights maps because in a few parts of the state, the VRA districts were at odds with the testimony presented by some members of the public about communities of interest that should be kept together.  The questioning by commissioners suggested that the amount of testimony proffered about other communities of interest should outweigh the VRA requirements in redistricting because fewer individuals provided such testimony, even if the law requires otherwise.

Tension between VRA-compliant maps and other redistricting criteria is inevitable, and has become evident in the current process.  What is refreshing is that drawing lines to maintain an advantage for incumbents does appear to have been removed from the process as intended.  However, it seems to have been replaced by new pressures to favor lines based on popularity and not necessarily on what federal and state laws require.

On June 10 the commission will release its proposed districts for the Assembly, state and Congress.  The public will have six days to study these maps before the commission begins a second round of hearings on June 16 in Los Angeles.

How these initial maps comply with the overriding requirements of equalizing population and complying with the Voting Rights Act, however, will say a great deal about whether the commission process has improved a previously flawed process, or simply replaced one system that diluted minority voting strength with another.

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