Latinos and Redistricting: Speak Up for Your Community!

By NALEO Educational Fund on 03/31/2011 @ 03:00 PM

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the Latino community took seriously the call to stand up and be counted in the 2010 enumeration. The result of that is a new face for America and one that is increasingly Latino. We are now more than 50 million strong, and we accounted for more than half of the increase in the country’s population since 2000. We are the fastest-growing segment of the nation's population and already the second largest.

The numbers confirm that the Latino population had a significant impact in the growth of the population in many key states, including Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, just to name a few.

Our growth is such that even in states slated to lose congressional representation because of shifts in population -- Illinois, New Jersey and New York, for instance -- the loss would have been greater if not for the Latino population.

So what’s the next step? Redistricting. It’s the process of re-drawing district lines to represent these changes in population. Those new districts will decide the political landscape for at least the next ten years, and the Latino community deserves the right to participate in the process to create districts that reflect their needs and electoral preferences.

A redistricting body in the state takes the Census data and other important information and draws the maps based on certain criteria, including federal and state laws. Public input is very important because those who are drawing these new lines take testimony from the public to get much of the information they need for the work they’re doing. In some states, the legislature draw congressional and state lines, others use commissions, or commissions and the legislature share redistricting responsibilities.

Redistricting varies from state to state, but there are some fundamentals all states have in common. One of the most important criteria is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a federal law that protects Latinos and other underrepresented groups from discrimination in the electoral process. What that means is the lines can’t be drawn to dilute the Latino vote and they can’t be drawn to help parties gain political advantage if it discriminates against Latinos.

Another criterion is the consideration of “communities of interest.” Line drawers must also try to keep together those neighborhoods or geographic areas where residents have shared views, interests or characteristics. For Latinos, a “community of interest” can be a group of residents whose children attend the same schools and face the same challenges in obtaining a quality education. It can be neighborhoods that use the same transportation lines or access the same types of local services, such as public parks or libraries. It can be Latinos who work at the kinds of businesses that have shared employment or economic concerns.

It is because of the VRA and the “communities of interest” criterion that community members need to get involved, because they are the true experts in the redistricting process. They have the best knowledge about their neighborhoods and how those areas should be kept together during redistricting. They can provide crucial information about Latino experiences with voting and elections in order to safeguard against discrimination during the creation of maps.

It is therefore important that Latino community members learn and become versed in their state’s redistricting process. That includes testifying during the public hearings held by those drawing up the lines.

There’s another reason to get involved: a legal paper trail, just in case. Testimony from Latino community members helps ensure there is a solid record that voting rights advocates can use if they have to sue jurisdictions for VRA violations. Just as Latinos stood up to be counted during the Census, they must now stand up at redistricting hearings and provide input in the process. At the very least, the community can help make sure line drawers follow the law.

There is another important consideration, and it’s not just about showing up and testifying. It’s about Latinos holding the line drawers accountable and making sure they undertake the process in an open and transparent manner. All too often, decisions have been made behind closed doors in backroom deals. An open and participatory redistricting process is one of the best ways to ensure that Latino voices are heard.

The NALEO Educational Fund is working in three regions of the country to connect Latinos to the redistricting process – California, Central Florida and the Las Vegas metropolitan area. We are providing technical assistance throughout the process and mobilizing Latinos to testify and provide information during redistricting hearings. Leading Latino voting rights advocates, such as MALDEF and LatinoJustice PRLDEF, are conducting similar efforts in other regions of the country.

Redistricting occurs once every ten years, and the decisions made this year will determine the political destiny of Latinos for at least the next decade. We can’t afford to be left out of the process.

A special thank you to the NALEO Educational Fund for contributing this Guest Post.


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