HOUSTON – In Texas and other states with increasing Latino populations, “HCVAP” is likely to become the most dominant political acronym in the current redistricting process and likely throughout the 2012 presidential election cycle.
The surge in the Latino population between the 2000 and 2010 Census has enabled eight states to expand the size of their Congressional delegations, and others to at least retain the seats despite lower or stagnant growth among other ethnic groups. Texas, the largest Congressional block after California’s 53 members, heads the list, adding four new seats to its current 32 due to the increase of Latinos. Florida adds two seats for the same reason.
But in Texas, understanding that the Hispanic Citizen Voting Age Population is approximately only half of the Hispanic population, helps explain the relatively low voter turnout of Latinos compared to other groups.
“We don’t talk about that enough in the media,” said Greg Wyeth, senior redistricting initiative consultant, Outreach Strategists, in remarks to members of Houston’s ethnic media who assembled there under the auspices of New America Media. Wyeth said the public discourse of low Latino turnout in Texas elections often turns into a “blame game” of “why don’t Hispanics vote” rather than a dispassionate analysis of the numbers.
Republicans, however, who dominate the state’s legislature, and are therefore currently responsible for drawing the new maps, have a keen appreciation of Latino demographics, so much so that the state’s initial reapportionment proposals have drawn adverse reactions from the U.S. Department of Justice and the courts for lack of compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), explained to media attendees his organization had just won a September court victory against the Texas-proposed map of House districts. MALDEF had alleged that the state had discriminated against Latino voters through various techniques, including carving up districts in ways deemed illegal under VRA’s Section II (a permanent provision that applies to all states). The court agreed.
In Nueces County, for example, which has three Latino-dominant House districts, the legislature’s plan eliminated the smaller one. “It went gone,” Figueroa said. “We drew it orange, so we sometimes would call it Nemo,” referring to the lost fish who was the object of his father’s search in an animated movie. “Where did Nemo go? We lost Nemo,” said Figueroa of MALDEF ‘s reaction to the legislature’s new map which split or “cracked” Nemo; then moved or “packed” those voters into other districts.
Sometimes, Figueroa said, illegal voter dilution tactics violate both Section II and V of the VRA, the latter being the statutes that require specific states, Texas among them, to seek permission from DOJ before making changes to voting procedures or to its voting district maps. Section V disallows states from making voting conditions worse for affected groups covered by the statute. DOJ has initially ruled that Texas can move forward with its Texas Senate and state board of education maps, but has not granted permission on the Texas Congressional map or Texas House map which, among other Latino targets, deep-sixed Nemo.
Texas, however, has also filed a court challenge against DOJ’s initial ruling, setting the stage for what will sure to be another acrimonious chapter in the state’s redistricting history.
Caroll Robinson, a law professor at Texas Southern University, said it is important to understand that the overarching Republican premise is to hold on to the status quo, an Anglo-Republican dominated political system. This goal, he contended, is consistent with the state’s Confederate and Civil Rights era history of obstructing minority rights. Even the DOJ approved plans for the state senate and board of education, upon close examination, Robinson argued, are weighted toward that objective. But he also encouraged minorities to get out of their silos and find means to cooperate to achieve parity in political empowerment.
Carroll’s vision of minority-coalition politics was shared by Rogene G. Calvert, director, Texas Asian American Redistricting Initiative, who also spoke out against the Texas House plan. For one, a Democratic Asian-American statehouse member, Hubert Vo, will fall victim to the inevitable partisanship of the redistricting process should the GOP- proposed lines be allowed to stand. She said the new map folds only a few precincts of Vo’s district into one predominant with constituents of an Anglo Democratic colleague, almost surely guaranteeing Vo’s loss in a head-to-head election where he has no base.
Though the Texas Asian-American has grown since the 2000 Census in and around Austin, Dallas, and particularly in Houston, the community is still only a small percentage of the populace. Yet, under the VRA, Asian-Americans do constitute “communities of interest,” sharing commonalities like language or other cultural affinities and they also are beginning to achieve electoral success, at the city council level in Houston, for example, by working with other ethnic communities. “Coalition politics is going to be the wave of the future,” Calvert said, “where we minorities work together more so that we can elect candidates of our choice.”
The symposium speakers noted that one reason coalition politics will become so critical for ethnic minority communities is that housing patterns are changing. As communities become more integrated and ethnic populations more diffuse, it will be far more difficult for them to achieve the 50 percent critical mass that enables them, under the VRA, to demand that lines be redrawn to reflect their numerically dominant status. And, as Figueroa noted, “bad case law” requiring that ethnic communities demonstrate that their numbers have reached a critical mass of voting age population will be a high hurdle to meet, especially in Texas. Not only is a large percentage of the Latino community “under the age of 18,” he said, but “we also have a significant non-citizen population.”
The current dissection of the Texas Latino population -- should it continue to trend Democratic-- minimizes the impact of their demographic growth as districts may well remain without a sufficient HCVAP to challenge Republican incumbency.
Houston Councilmember Melissa Noriega, who hosted symposium, thanked New America Media for shining light on the topic, said, “The choices to create districts that are packed and cracked, so that people get elected no matter what, has created this bastion of polarization that I think has damaged our country.”
Robinson, however, said ethnic communities in Texas -- already one of the country’s four minority-majority states -- have options, and to remember that the goal is to provide communities with the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, not necessarily one who is of their ethnic group. By pursuing coalition politics, “demographics is on our side,” Robinson said. “So somewhere between now and mid-decade, if we do the things we need to do, in terms of voter participation, voter education, voter registration, we have the ability to win some of these districts outright, and redistricting will take care of itself.”
Should the Latino community embrace that vision, it is unlikely that Nemo will be lost again in the foreseeable future.
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