LOS ANGELES—Alarmed at the way the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC) has done its work so far and worried that the resulting electoral maps could have dire consequences for communities of color over the next 10 years, civil rights groups have taken matters into their own hands.
Three organizations—the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting (CAPAFR) and the African-American Redistricting Collaborative (AARC)—have teamed up to draft their own “unity” redistricting maps, unveiled last week. (Click here to view.)
The unity maps—which include recommendations for 80 Assembly districts across the state as well as 24 state Senate districts in Southern California—are drawn in a way that would keep communities of color intact, maximizing their political power, advocates say.
In contrast, the commission’s first set of proposals carved up many communities of color, diluting the political power of Latinos, Asians and African Americans in Los Angeles County, Coachella Valley, and San Jose.
The civil rights groups are hoping that that the redistricting commission will incorporate some of the “unity” ideas and boundaries in its second round of maps, due out July14.
New and Challenging Process
California’s redistricting process is brand-new this year, the result of voter-approved ballot measures in 2008 and 2010. Instead of allowing politicians and power brokers to draw their own political districts, the new process turns control over to 14 ordinary citizens.
Like many of the state’s other grand democratic experiments, redistricting reform has created its own set of challenges. Those issues became clear when the commission released its first set of proposed maps on June 10.
“The commission seems to have been struggling with how to best draw districts with regards to the Voting Rights Act,” says Eugene Lee, voting rights project director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “They’re struggling with where to draw minority-majority districts, which is something the Voting Rights Act requires … where there is racially polarized voting.”
Racially polarized voting occurs in areas where candidates preferred by minority voters consistently do not get support from non-minority voters, Lee explains. Splitting minority voters into different districts in such areas all but guarantees they won’t elect their preferred candidates. That’s why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has generally required the drawing of “majority-minority” districts—in which ethnic and racial minorities make up the majority of voters—in racially polarized regions.
Community Input Prevailed
When the state’s redistricting commission released its first maps, however, “it was clear they weighed community input heavily but did not take the Voting Rights Act into consideration,” says Michelle Romero, a fellow at the Greenlining Institute, a policy institute in Berkeley, Calif., that works for racial justice.
Indeed, many of the commission’s meetings this past spring were dominated by Tea Party activists who argued—loudly—that the panel should not take race into account when drawing political districts.
Although California’s Latino population grew by 3 million over the last decade, accounting for 90 percent of the state’s population growth in the 2010 Census, the commission’s first-draft maps did not include additional Latino-majority districts. Instead, “there were no gains in the Assembly districts, no gains in Congress, and a loss [of Latino districts] in the state Senate,” says Steven Ochoa, MALDEF’s national redistricting coordinator. Some called the commission plan “a worst-case scenario” for Latinos.
By contrast, the unity plan would establish Latino voting districts in Imperial County and the Coachella Valley as well as parts of Orange County and East San Jose. Those areas had been carved up under the commission’s first-draft maps, a plan that would likely deprive Latinos of the ability to elect their preferred candidates.
The unity plan also keeps intact Los Angeles Chinatown and the Vietnamese community of Evergreen in San Jose, which the commission had carved into different districts, as well as establishing an Asian-American voter majority in the West San Gabriel Valley. Meanwhile, the largely black population of Inglewood, Gardena and surrounding areas would be in one district, whereas the first commission maps split African Americans in that part of L.A. County into two.
“The unity proposal gives communities of color across the state fair representation without limiting another group’s ability to be fairly represented,” Romero says. “Traditionally, the Latinos draw lines for Latinos, Asians draw lines for Asians and African Americans for the same.”
While communities of color in California have teamed up on redistricting and related issues in the past, “it’s historic to see such a level of collaboration [while also assuring] that other communities have a fair shot,” Romero says.
Although the state’s minority groups have unique interests, approaching the commission collectively is the most powerful way to educate the 14 citizen commissioners, Lee adds.
Even so, putting together the unity map “took a lot of hours, a lot of back and forth and dialogue, a lot of blood sweat and tears,” Ochoa says. The civil rights groups did not present a unity map for congressional districts or for state Senate seats outside Southern California because they couldn’t come to an agreement quickly enough.
The commission has until August 15 to draw final district lines. Once the second-draft maps are released next week, there will be a limited amount of time for commissioners to make additional modifications—and limited opportunities for input at public meetings and hearings. (Comments will still be accepted online here or at the commission's website, http://wedrawthelines.ca.gov.)
Ochoa, for one, is optimistic that the commission’s second-draft maps will reflect both public testimony and the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. “They’re better informed now than they were on June 10,” he says of the commission. “Then, they were more focused on public testimony. They’re struggling with the very difficult process of satisfying public testimony and also complying with the law.”
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