Tag Archives: MALDEF

Redistricting Strangles Voices in Minority Communities

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


 

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.