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Redistricting silences communities who cannot ask for help
Harbir Kaur Bhatia ran for City Council (District 1) in Santa Clara in the 2020 general election because minority voices in her district were not adequately represented. She told IC that the Asian Law Alliance sued the city after the post-Census 2010 redistricting because it did not give people of color or grassroots leaders in her district (45.6% of Asian origin) a chance to run or to win.
“When we have such a large population of voters we have a very powerful voice,” said Bhatia but, “there was a lack of minority voices or perspectives.”
Redistricting draws boundaries that determine whether a community’s voice gets heard
In its most basic form said Nina Perales, VP of Litigation at MALDEF , “redistricting is just about drawing lines on a map to represent who is going to vote for certain elected officials.” From time to time a district’s boundaries are redrawn following a census. Certain neighborhoods are grouped together in types of districts essentially to create groups of voters.
Drawing lines on a map is “a very political act”, so it’s important for communities to get involved and become part of the process, added Perales.
At an EMS briefing on June 30, in partnership with the Texas Civil Rights Project, Houston In Action, and Mi Familia Vota, advocates explored how redistricting has traditionally discriminated against communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
Redistricting makes community invisible to the powers that be
Texan Myrtala Tristan shared a cautionary tale about how redistricting discriminates against communities of color.
A 35 year resident of Lakewood – a suburb of Houston – Tristan’s neighborhood was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. As a river of water swept down her street and flooded her home, no help was forthcoming from the authorities. Her district said Tristan was not represented in local government and had no political clout. When the hurricane hit there was no alert to evacuate, no phone response to calls for help. Tristan and her husband waded to safety on their own and were eventually transported by an 18 wheel truck to a shelter. “People started falling off the truck into the water, older folk, kids,” recounted Tristan. No food or water was supplied at the stadium where evacuees were held. In the aftermath of the hurricane, when her community desperately needed help to recover, there was no response from the government to appeals and claims for assistance.
Redistricting discriminates against communities of color
Perales explained that in racially segregated Pasadena (TX), Latino populations concentrated in the north side receive fewer services than the south side where Anglos have control. When it rains said Perales, flooding occurs in the north side, but flood control measures are in place to safeguard the southern part of the district. The Texas House of Representatives split neighborhoods in the north for political purposes, so while the north side was represented in city government, but not at the state level.
Lines were redrawn after litigation following the 2010 census to ensure neighborhoods stayed intact, allow more Latinos to register to vote, and elect officials who represented their growing numbers (Latino population grew by almost 2.8 million in the 2010 Census). As a direct result, the district elected Mary Ann Perez, a progressive Latina woman to the House of Representatives, replacing the conservative Anglo who previously held the seat.
“Our growth and increased political participation are strongest when the political lines that are drawn around our neighborhoods are fair,” said Perales. ”So redistricting is a time where we need to be very involved and very vigilant…so that we can ensure that our growth, registration and votes are fairly reflected in political lines.”
Immigration and natural family growth are increasing AAPI and Latino populations in Texas, said Perales, so it’s important to look at redistricting as a fair representation of what neighborhoods look like today.
Who controls the redistricting process?
Responsibility for redrawing political lines varies by state and local government, and intent.
In Texas, city councils are responsible for redrawing lines in cities which have elections by district, while school boards of trustees control school district boundaries, and county commissioners redraw district lines for the county
The Texas Legislature controls boundaries that will determine political representation for congressional seats, state house representatives, state senate and state board of education. Currently, Republicans have the house, senate, and governorship, resulting in a one-party Trifecta that controls how the state’s boundaries are drawn. “Don’t pass up an opportunity,” urged Perales, to engage in local redistricting processes– city, school board, and county –and influence decision making at the local level that impacts the quality of life in communities.
“It can make the difference to the schools -to-prison pipeline policies within school districts, or a neighborhood park in the minority side of town.”
Activists are fighting to make redistricting fair
“You don’t have to be a citizen or registered voter to participate in local redistricting,” confirmed advocate Debbie Chan of OCA Greater Houston. The census includes every resident, regardless of immigration status or ethnicity, so districts have to represent that count in its redistricting to ensure that public services (schools, roads, hospitals) match community needs. She encouraged communities “to pay attention at the local level because that’s where it’s going to impact everyone immediately.” Federal dollars that are redistributed into communities is our tax money added Chen, so we need to have a say in how budgets are spent.
Fair Opportunity Maps
Advocates are focusing on the equitable distribution of tax dollars among minority groups in communities: Is funding going towards fixing potholes, open sewers, broken streetlights, or damaged sidewalks? Is money allocated to fix problems and who is making that decision on how money gets spent?
Chan referred to ‘cracking and packing’ – a process that splits communities of interest into sections which limit their political clout, or consolidating them into groups that give them opportunities for a better chance of representation. Opportunity maps are evenly balanced and give multiple communities an even chance to elect someone who has the best ideas for everyone, not just the community of interest.
Discriminatory redistricting after Census 2010 ‘packed’ districts 137 and 149 “like a can of sardines”, said Chan, specifically to prevent them from having opportunity districts for minority candidates to run for office. API communities successfully fought back against with a lawsuit that allowed allow two Asian Americans to run and win in those districts.
Advocates are demanding transparency in the redistricting process to give communities an opportunity to offer input. They are calling for public display of maps, public hearings, and translation services so immigrants and those with limited English proficiency have their voices included as decisions are made.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents