Latinos Beware: Redistricting for Influence Not a Panacea

Latinos Beware: Redistricting for Influence Not a Panacea

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Every 10 years Democrats and Republicans come courting. Each claims to have a cure for any redistricting woes that Latinos may endure. I'm not convinced. This will be my fourth round of decennial redistricting in which I will either litigate against these partisan salesmen or train Latino political advocates in the perils of redistricting. In every redistricting round my message is the same: be skeptical; beware.

Last week Professor Wilfedo Caraballo, a former fixture in the Essex County legislative delegation, touted the partisan line that the "influence" redistricting strategy he endorsed ten years ago has been vindicated when it comes to Latino political strength. Redistricting is a complex, multi-layered political exercise that lends itself to strange bedfellows and nothing is as simple as it seems. The influence strategy that gained the upper hand in New Jersey in the 2000 round of redistricting purports to reduce the levels of Latino voters in numerous districts so as to spread their influence around and invest in them the ability to become critical swing voters. Presumably, the opposite of an influence district is a majority Latino district where Latinos stand a better chance to win the district outright and elect candidates of their choice. The difference is actually one of degree since the Voting Rights Act prohibits the dilution of Latino voting strength - now officially 18 percent of the state's population - no matter which redistricting strategy prevails before the state's Apportionment Committee.

Now the "influence" redistricting strategy is once again front-and-center before the New Jersey Apportionment Commission but unless my math is wrong, the strategy has hardly made a dent in the abysmal state of Latino politics in New Jersey these last ten years. Nearly one-in-five persons in the Garden State is Latino and yet there has never been more than one Latino/Latina state senator out of forty at any time in history (Robert Menendez in 1991-92 and Teresa Ruiz now in her first term).

Approximately ten years ago, the state had six Latino/Latino state Assembly members. Today there are six. Today we have one Latina state senator but that's still only one out of forty - if this is progress, it's glacial. Much is being said about the benefits of "mixed race" delegations from certain legislative districts with assertions that every district with a least 33 percent Latino population has Latino representation in Trenton. But this begs the question: wouldn't a solid Latino majority district have the ability to elect an all Latino delegation, including that rarest of elected officials, a Latino state senator?

Again, the question is whether the redistricting strategies of the past, and present, benefit the Latino community specifically, not the amorphous minority community that is cited in the court case that upheld the Democrats redistricting strategy in the last round. Protecting incumbency is a powerful motivating factor in redistricting and given New Jersey's zealous reliance on the partisan slating process, the debate over "influence" should not be relegated only to which non-Latino candidate can Latinos influence and elect. It is one thing for a Latino incumbent to claim that he or she can get reelected without as many Latino residents in a district - but that confuses the power of incumbency with Latino opportunity for new emerging candidates. The point here is that both influence districts and majority Latino districts have a role to play in achieving a plan the fairly reflects the voting strength of New Jersey's largest minority group.

But if those who tout the Democratic Party line are really interested in opening up the redistricting process for Latinos, they should use federal law to attack the most retrogressive elements of the state's legislative scheme: New Jersey's 40 at-large districts and the archaic principle of town integrity. Each of the state's districts elects three representatives. This is a classic at-large legislative scheme and it is axiomatic that at-large systems always thwart the political will of their numerical minorities. Drawing forty senatorial districts is fine. Adding eighty assembly districts that are not coterminous is even better. Town integrity - the state law that permits only Jersey City and Newark to be split into multiple legislative districts - is also fine, to a point. Where it impedes compliance with the Voting Rights Act because it operates to dilute Latino voting strength by hampering fair districts for Latinos, then it must fall.

In short, New Jersey's Latinos have to be wary of both Democrat and Republican claims of redistricting superiority in the short term and cognizant of the structural impediments that inhibit creative, fair and inclusive redistricting in the long term. As the state's largest minority, they should demand no less.

Juan Cartagena is a constitutional and civil rights attorney in New Jersey and New York and author of "New Jersey's Multimember Legislative Districts and Latino Political Power."