Latino activists flex redistricting muscle after decade of growth

Greg Nash

After two straight decades in which Latinos powered population growth in the United States, Latino and Hispanic activist groups are demanding more political representation in Congress and legislatures as states redraw their political boundaries.

In capitals across the country, those activist groups are urging legislatures to add new districts in which a majority of the population is Hispanic, in hopes of increasing the number of elected officials who look like the communities they represent.

So far, many of those groups have come away hoping for more.

“This has turned out to be a very disappointing redistricting cycle. States that were able to increase their congressional delegations, Texas, Florida, we didn’t see additional Latino districts materializing where Latinos were largely responsible for population growth in those states,” said Arturo Vargas, chief executive of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Latinos have been the largest minority group in the United States for more than a decade, and their rapid growth in recent years has formed the foundation for the nation’s expanding population. 

The United States has added about 50 million residents since the 2000 census. Of those new residents, more than half, 27 million, are of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Latinos make up nearly half, 47.4 percent, of residents in New Mexico, and more than 30 percent of those living in California, Texas and Arizona.

“The Latino voting power has reached a critical mass,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “That’s created a pent up demand for political enfranchisement at the congressional and legislative level.”

But Latino representation in Congress has not increased at the same pace. Just 46 voting members, or about 9 percent of the 535 voting members in the House and Senate, are of Hispanic origin.

Even in states where the Latino population is smaller, such as Iowa, Washington, Oregon and North Carolina, it has grown to a sufficient point that advocates are looking to bolster their ranks in state legislatures.

This year, legislatures in some states have moved to increase the number of districts likely to elect a Hispanic member of Congress. Illinois lawmakers drew a second Hispanic-heavy district in Chicago. Colorado’s independent redistricting commission created a new district north of Denver in which 38 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin.

Even in those states, however, Latino activists see a process that left them with less representation than they are due.

“In Illinois, we’re seeing some retrogression, some steps backwards in terms of legislative seats,” Vargas said. “The state lost population, but increased in its Latino population. So it would be a natural result that there would be an increase in districts where Latino voters are able to have a greater say in who gets elected. It’s great to see an additional Latino seat for Congress, but when we consider state legislative seats, we see we actually took steps backwards.”

Advocates have run into the age-old problem of a redistricting process in which entrenched incumbents draw the boundaries: Those who hold power today have little incentive to give up that power, even in the face of a growing population that deserves more representation.

The barrier to entry has come from a bipartisan array of legislators who fear surrendering their own power.

In Texas, legislative Republicans drew two new seats in Congress in which Anglos are the majority, and no new seats that would give Hispanics a majority. In the last decade, the number of Anglos in Texas rose by 187,000 people, while the number of Hispanics grew by more than 10 times that many, 1.98 million.

“They’re weaponizing gerrymandering to exclude Latinos from participation,” Garcia said of the Texas legislature.

In Nevada, the Democratic-controlled legislature drew three districts in the most populous southern half of the state that are likely to favor Democrats, in part by dividing Hispanic-heavy Las Vegas among all three seats. Over the past 10 years, Nevada’s population grew by about 400,000 residents, nearly half of whom, 170,000, were Hispanic.

“We have always seen redistricting as very much a bipartisan problem for the Latino community,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Latinos are a growing population. So if you’re going to create districts for a growing population, someone, some incumbent, is going to lose out. Whether that’s a Democratic incumbent or a Republican incumbent, an incumbent isn’t going to voluntarily offer up themselves.”

Veteran redistricting experts say the Latino community is benefitting from a broader interest across demographic lines in the decennial process to remap American political boundaries. A decade after one of the most egregiously gerrymandered redistricting processes in American history, more people — Latino, Anglo, Black, Asian or any other group — are paying attention.

“The Latino population has grown hugely and there’s been a lot of emphasis on Latino organizing at multiple levels,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “That’s rolling over into redistricting, which I think people understand now plays a big role in determining whether politics works for you or not.”

“Latinos have experienced over the last decade politics that doesn’t work for them,” Li said.

In states where Latinos have failed to win new district lines through legislative or commission processes, activist groups are turning to another favored means of influencing map lines: The courts.

LULAC is involved in lawsuits challenging lines in Iowa, Texas, Florida and other states. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus and Voto Latino have each filed their own suits against Texas. MALDEF has challenged legislative district lines in Illinois. Other suits are likely to come.

“This is where we rely on the courts and where we rely on the Department of Justice to take an eagle eye on what has happened,” Vargas said. “We would hope that the federal courts would be sympathetic to enforcing the Voting Rights Act.”

Saenz, who heads MALDEF, said he is watching his home state of California closely. An early proposal from California’s independent redistricting commission contemplates fracturing a district held by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) — the most heavily Hispanic district in the country — into neighboring seats.

A decade ago, MALDEF raised concerns about a number of California county boards of supervisors that failed to draw a sufficient number of Latino-heavy districts. 

“I am concerned that we will see a repeat of that this go-round,” Saenz said.

The exploding growth of the Latino population is all but certain to add to the ranks of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and those members who come from Latino backgrounds, experts and observers said. Li, of the Brennan Center, said many of those new representatives would come from states like Colorado, Arizona and California — states where commissions, not the legislature, draws maps.

“Given the growth of the population, there will be more elected Latinos to the Congress,” Saenz said. “It may not happen in 2022, but over the course of this decade there will be an increase.”

Tags California Florida Gerrymandering Iowa latinos Lucille Roybal-Allard Redistricting Texas

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