Tag Archives: Common Cause

Thomas Saenz Is A Census Optimist

Editor’s Note: Amidst growing concerns over pandemic-related delays in the census deadline, one veteran voting rights activist finds reason to hope and sees potential for gains in representation by underserved groups, especially Latinos.

Thomas Saenz is that rare voting rights advocate who is optimistic about delays created by the COVID 19 pandemic in filling out census forms – and in submitting data for use in redistricting.

Delaying the deadline for data used to redraw voting districts for seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures will negatively affect elections in several states, redistricting reformers like Common Cause argue. They have asked Congress to review a request from the Census Bureau for a four month delay.

Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), sees the delay as a way to ensure a more accurate census count. That’s the key, he argues, to ensuring fairer political representation, whether on school boards, city councils, state legislative and congressional districts – even elections for local dog catcher.

Despite the low self-response rates for Latino areas, Saenz believes there’s a real potential for more Latino representation in the 2021 redistricting across the country.

“The low response rates were expected.  This delay gives not only the Census Bureau but  groups like NALEO, all of us, more time to get people to respond.  And the more time we get, the more complete the count.  Some people just take time to be convinced and often on the ordinary timeline, there’s not enough time to do that,” Saenz says.

“This was never going to be a great Census because of the Trump Administration which is the most divisive ever,” Saenz adds on reflection.  “But again, having more time is good.”

Saenz pins hopes on increases in the census count in Texas, where the gains in Latino immigration over the last decade have been dramatic.  “Even if the state is not investing any money in outreach, it’s projected Texas can get up to three new Congressional seats, and at least one or two of those should be Latinos.” He predicts push back from the state legislature, which conducts redistricting, unless the Democrats take the state house in the upcoming elections, Then, he says, it’s a different ball game.

California, on the other hand, may lose a seat but Saenz says it won’t be a Latino one.  “I expect to see a current seat that isn’t Latino becoming Latino.” And he expects to see a gain in Arizona and possibly one in Illinois, given the increase in both states’ Latino population.  “Illinois has one Latino majority seat and I expect it to become two, if the population has increased there as I expect it has. This might be the time”

Redistricting usually starts with the delivery of “apportionment counts” to the President on or before Jan 1  — the total population count of each state and the number of congressional seats to which each state is entitled based on that count.  The total number of seats is fixed at 435, but the population of each state determines whether they win or lose districts every 10 years.  Redrawing legislative districts based on census data usually begins on April 1, at the latest.

Because the whole Census operation has been delayed by the pandemic, the Census Bureau has asked Congress to extend the deadline for delivering data about Congress to April 30, 2021, and to the states to July 31, 2020.

Saenz sees potential pluses in delaying reapportionment of the House of Representatives from the end of December to April. It may actually mean a new President will be in office who won’t try to discount immigrants in the redistricting count, Saenz says.

Last July the Trump Administration issued an executive order to have departments collect “citizenship data” for the Census Bureau. It is a move widely seen as building the case for states to restrict redistricting counts to citizens only – rather than immigrants. The executive order came on the heels of the  Supreme Court’s ruling prohibiting the addition of a question about citizenship in the Census questionnaire.

Delaying state data will also allow a new president to “stop any mischief” regarding the use of citizenship data to exclude non citizens from redrawing legislative districts.  “A new administration can come in in a deliberate manner and stop that from going on… If more time is needed to gather and deliver the data,  they should not waste time on the executive order anyway. They must concentrate resources on tabulating the questionnaires, and not in having departments turn over citizenship data to the Census Bureau.”

One argument against postponing the data is that redistricting will be a rushed process. Here again, Saenz takes a pragmatic view.  “Texas is always a rushed process because the legislature is only in session for two months – March and April – and they have an early filing deadline for candidates in 2022.  In the worst case, they may have to change the deadline.  For us, if there is a legal challenge to their redistricting, it will be a burden, but it’s okay.”

In California, it’s not the legislature but a commission of appointees that oversees redistricting. Saenz says the commission can do some of its work before the data is released, starting with testimony from communities about their interests in being represented,  “They won’t know the numbers or be able to promote maps, but they can say: ‘We don’t want to split this area.’”

Redistricting advocates worry about Virginia and New Jersey which hold legislative e elections in 2021.  Saenz says, “Maybe they will have an election without new lines.  Is that a disaster? In my mind it’s not.”

For Saenz,  the significant increase in the Latino population over the last decade will create real opportunities for more political representation in the decade ahead.  More time  gives him reason to hope for a more accurate count.

EMS contributing editor Pilar Marrero is an author and veteran reporter for La Opinion.

Draw The Lines That Shape Your Future

In 2018, Stephanie Hofeller, the estranged daughter of Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller, released files from her deceased father’s disk drives that eventually led to the Supreme Court decision to remove the controversial citizenship question from the Census.

The Hofeller files had a significant impact– they confirmed that politicians and political operatives were creating strategies to disenfranchise minority communities and manipulating redistricting laws to favor one race and one party.

Thomas Hofeller was credited with masterminding the 2001 and 2011 redistricting process for the Republican Party. He travelled the country wherever Republicans controlled the legislature and redistricting process, and rigged political maps to give Republicans an unfair advantage in winning elections and holding on to legislatures.

The citizenship question was born from Hofeller’s tactics to gerrymander voting districts in favor of the Republican party.

In Texas, Hofeller discovered that thousands of Latinos and minorities could be eliminated from the decennial by adding a citizenship question to the Census. In an unpublished study  he concluded that adding the citizenship question to the census would be ‘”advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” when voting districts were redrawn.

Stephanie Hofeller shared this information with watchdog group Common Cause who added it to their legal fight challenging legislative maps her father had drawn for North Carolina. The information then made its way into lawsuits challenging the citizenship question at the Supreme Court, which eventually decided to axe the question from the Census altogether.

Political and gerrymandering schemes like these deter vulnerable minority communities from participating in the census, warned Kathy Feng of Common Cause in a briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services. She emphasized that politicians could exploit redistricting to skew power in their favor, making it increasingly important to ‘advocate vociferously’ for everyone to be counted in the census.

Feng urged communities to get involved in the redistricting process to increase their voting power and ability to elect a candidate of their choice.

As the nation grows more diverse, the changing face of America has to be reflected at every political level. Elected officials must voice the needs and concerns of the neighborhoods and communities they represent, instead of serving their own political interests.

When this does not happen, communities suffer.

What Redistricting Does

Voting districts are redrawn every ten years to reflect population shifts in communities across the country and ensure equal representation for all residents.

By law, once the Census is complete by December 31, the Census Bureau must release data on how many people live in each state and determine how many representatives will be allocated to each state in Congress.

Redistricting is an attempt to set the balance straight.

But when redistricting gets distorted, the imbalance can devastate communities.

Gerrymandering Hurts Communities

In 2012, Koreatown, the densely populated Korean American community in LA, was carved into four different districts along a valuable piece of real estate on the Wilshire Corridor that local politicians coveted for its donors, businesses and development prospects.

Koreatown is a largely immigrant, non-English speaking community that fell prey to politicians who illegally gerrymandered district boundaries, and formed voter blocks based on race, to give themselves the advantage in future council elections.

Despite appeals challenging the division, recounts Feng, during the 9/11 media blackout, the legislature split the community “into four different pieces behind a cloak of secrecy,” denying Koreatown residents a chance for more balanced and greater political power.

In another example of unfair redistricting, Watts, a predominantly African American and Latino community in SoCal was hit by a freak snowstorm in 2003, and appealed to congressional, assembly and senate offices for emergency aid. At the time Watts was split into three different districts and residents were told, “We don’t really represent you.” Feng described how residents “were essentially ping-ponged from one office to another and it took more than a week for the state to finally declare an emergency.”

If the communities in Watts were combined into a single district, they would have had enough voice to demand the state and federal help they deserved.

“The districting process not only can determine which candidates will win in specific districts, but also can determine which party ultimately controls our local, state, and federal legislatures,” writes Douglas J. Amy,  a leading expert on electoral voting systems at Mount Holyoke College. “In a very real way, then, the political manipulation of district lines devalues the vote and undermines the democratic process.”

Census Challenges Impacting the Redistricting Process

Redistricting can be complicated by populations shifting across district and state lines over a ten year timeframe, but this year operations have been hobbled by the unprecedented restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

People remain hard to count due to COVID-19

The Census Bureau faces a challenging task counting everyone with quarantines keeping people isolated and out of reach. If enumerators cannot gather data from hard to count, quarantined households, an accurate census count may be impossible. The decennial could exclude people who don’t self-respond because they have no computer or broadband access, and  “others may not even be sure about responding,” said Feng.

The Census Bureau has extended the timeline for data gathering through October, and redistricting could begin by July 31, 2021.

But it’s unlikely that lines can be redrawn in time before the next primary elections for federal and state candidates. 

The US population is on the move

Last year, the Census Bureau released data showing that the US population was moving southwards.  UC Berkeley reported that  the California housing crisis created an exodus from the Golden State as a shortage of affordable homes and low rents forced middle and low income people inland and to the south.

“In a recession or when times are hard, people move,” commented Feng.

Migration has an impact on how many seats are apportioned to each state for congressional representatives, because district lines have to be redrawn to reflect revised population counts.

As long as California’s population remains static, the state will retain its current quota of 53 representatives. But if the census count reveals a decline in population as people move to other states, CA will lose congressional seats. Projections from Election Data Services indicate that Texas and Florida are on track to gain congressional seats as more people move south. Between 2010 to 2019, cities in Texas –  Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and Dallas – added the most people.

However, redistricting lines were drawn ten years ago and do not accurately reflect the current numbers of residents – populations shrink or increase as people move, are born or immigrate in each district.

“Ultimately you want to make sure that each district has an equal number of residents.” confirmed Kathy Feng. Essentially each district must have the same voice when it comes to electing their representatives, not just in Congress, “but all the way down to the state legislature, city council, and school board.”

The term ‘resident’, Feng clarified, means every citizen, immigrant, and undocumented person in the district, not “just the number of voters.”

Reform Redistriction

Traditionally, legislators were responsible for redrawing district lines, a practice that Feng called “self-serving” because legislators were influenced by partisan interests or preserving their own ability to rerun for office.

California led redistricting reform by selecting 14 independent commissioners from diverse communities, to inform the redistricting process by gathering input from public forums around the state. Citizen commissions offer communities an opportunity to share information and form districts based on where they reside.

In Culver City, “People lined up as if they were going to a rock concert rather than a public hearing” about their community,” recalls Feng.

California’s award winning initiative has set the national standard for independent redistricting through public engagement. Nine states have followed its lead. Michigan is giving power back to communities by adopting new rules to allow for the creation of a citizen’s commission to redraw lines.

By standing up to be counted, people could eliminate partisan gerrymandering in their districts and shape the future of their communities.  Equal representation from redistricting will empower minority communities if they choose to participate more actively in the census.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents


Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

 

image: Elkanah Tisdale, Wikimedia

images: Kathy Feng, Common Cause

Invisible, Undercounted & Disenfranchised

For generations, millions of Americans whose roots lie in the Middle East and North Africa — MENA — have essentially become invisible people because the Census Bureau has denied requests for their own racial category.

“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, CSU-Dominguez Hills. “I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”

Palestinian-American Loubna Qutami, a President’s postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley specializing in ethnic studies, says that since MENA doesn’t have a classification of its own, it legally falls under the white category.

MENA populations have their own specific needs for health care, education, language assistance and civil rights protection, but they have no way to advocate for themselves because numerically they are folded into the category of white Americans.

To change this, Dr. Salhi, Dr. Qutami and other MENA leaders have been mobilizing their communities to participate in the 2020 census, encouraging people to write in their ethnicity. They spoke 10 other experts and activists on a May 13 two-hour video conference organized by Ethnic Media Services on the historical, linguistic and political challenges  that make the MENA population among the hardest to count in California.

Geographically, MENA populations live on three continents — from the border of Afghanistan south to the tip of Africa — and in 22 nations in the Middle East alone, with numerous subgroups such as Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians.

“North Africa is actually a concept that the French gave to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, which they colonized,” says Dr. Salhi. The neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya were added later.

Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.

For decades, the Census Bureau has turned down requests to add MENA to the official category of races, currently white, black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

The result, says Dr. Qutami, artificially props up the white population count, which has been in decline, while suppressing the count of MENA residents who don’t identify themselves as white. According to the 2015 Census Bureau’s “National Content Test – Race and Ethnicity Report, “As expected, the percent reporting as White is significantly lower with the inclusion of a distinct MENA category when compared to treatments with no MENA category.”

California mirrors the challenge to the MENA population of geographic size and diversity, says Emilio Vaca, deputy director of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which directs census outreach. The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey reported that  11 million of California’s 40 million residents, about 27%, are immigrants.

“That’s equivalent to the entire state of Georgia,” Vaca emphasized. At home, most of those immigrants speak one or more of 200 languages other than English.

Homarya Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, broke down the face of diversity in just one San Diego neighborhood that her organization serves: “We have 45 different national origins — from MENA, Asia and Latin America — who speak more than 100 languages in the 6.5-mile City Heights district, a distinct community of refugees and immigrants.” Educating and motivating these groups to participate in the census is a way to engage them in the civic life of the wider city.

Historical necessity — what specific immigrant groups have done to survive — also plays a role in the MENA undercount. Up until the mid-20th century, only whites could own property, and only “free white immigrants” could become American citizens.

To survive and advance, Middle Eastern immigrants successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as white in 1920. North African immigrants, as members of the MENA population, got pulled along and found themselves legally classified as white as well.

The discriminatory policy for citizenship and property ownership favoring whites only ended with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.  But even then, MENA communities found it difficult to raise funds and mobilize calls for action to address their needs. They didn’t know where their fellow compatriots were located and couldn’t raise official numbers to request funds and resources.

“We were helpless. In many instances, we had to generate our own data,” says Dr. Qutami.

Over the years, the Census Bureau has never clearly answered why they’ve refused to include the MENA classification, despite concluding, in a 2017 report, that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA Respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”

The bureau again turned down the 2018 request for the 2020 census. Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, announced in a public meeting on census preparations that “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”

MENA advocates believe filling out the 2020 census is the only way to avoid another undercount. Without doing this, Yusufi says, “our communities will continue to be invisible and left in the margins because data really matters.”

Gaining services customized to MENA’s needs is only part of what’s at stake. So, too, argues Yusufi, is building power. MENA populations then can elect individuals “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” when they stigmatize MENA communities.

Kathay Feng of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause emphasized that participation in the census is the first step to representation. In America, resources and rights are accorded by representation based on the number of residents at all levels, from the state down to the municipality, in proportion to the total population.

“Everyone is counted, regardless of immigration status or whether they are registered voters or not,” Feng said, “because all residents pay taxes in one way or another, and most immigrants would eventually become citizens in the long run.”

Every 10 years, immediately after the decennial census submits population data, electoral districts are redrawn. In California, which has been at the forefront of redistricting reforms, the old practice of allowing legislators to draw district lines based on which populations are sure to vote them back into office — known as gerrymandering — was replaced in 2009 by independently selected commissioners. Nine other states have followed California’s lead.

But, Feng emphasized, to be effective and to ensure their voices are heard, residents have to be  engaged at the local level.  And this year, there is a danger that anti-immigrant forces will restrict the residents who count in redistricting to voters only.

“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. “Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants.”

Emilio Vaca is optimistic that California can meet the undercount challenge: “As of May 11, California has a self-response rate of 59.6%, which is above the national average of 58%.” This is all the more impressive, Vaca noted, given how the pandemic has affected outreach.

Many of the speakers on the call testified to the ongoing efforts to shift to virtual outreach and “drive by” caravans and taking the census to where the people are.

“We had a food bank event for the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in south Sacramento that attracted more than 2,000 families who came by cars, and we actually engaged with them about the census in every single car,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR in Sacramento. “Many were recent refugees.”

The 2020 census form doesn’t include the MENA racial category, but Question 9 allows respondents to write in “MENA” and their specific ethnicities such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian or Kurd.

Being visible in the 2020 census, the speakers agreed, will lay the foundation for the next few MENA generations to build on what this generation has started.

 


Image: Siti Aisyah, Pixabay