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Latinos Must Beware Of Redistricting


January 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

In the largest cities and in some of the nation's smaller state capitals, Latinos made historic and very impressive attempts at being elected mayor in 2001. While those elections were taking place, city council members, county commissioners and legislators labored at redrawing congressional, legislative, county, judicial and aldermanic districts, and in some states, many others, including hospital and school board districts.

The configurations adopted are important to everyone, especially to Latinos and blacks, because they effectively represent the boundaries in which many political battles will be fought during the next 10 years, or until the next census in 2010. For all intents and purposes, the configurations are carved in stone unless courts order the boundaries changed.

Redistricting is the decennial process through which political power is ostensibly allocated based on the latest census. During this laborious process, white ethnics struggle to find ways to hold on to the power they have, despite their alarming and irreversible decline in population. Blacks are now beginning to find themselves in a similar predicament, trying to avoid any decrease in representation despite their limited growth in population. If their schemes work, Latinos could be deprived of representation.

Phenomenal population growth has never been a problem among Latinos. As we proved in the 2000 census, our growth is now substantial enough to offset any decline in the black and white populations and still enable Chicago to show an increase in population for the first time in 50 years. In light of this fact, a reasonable person could surmise that Latinos would gain in representation. But not necessarily. Not in Illinois, and certainly not in Chicago.

Theoretically, the allocation of power is supposed to be based on population. But with the data and technology available, districts can be cleverly drawn to include people but not voters. That is to say, they include people who are not registered to vote or precincts in which voter turnout is low. This is gerrymandering by registration and turnout. Latino registered voters or precincts with high Latino voter turnout can be allocated to a district already represented by a Latino or soon to be represented by a Latino. Latinos who are not registered to vote or who may rarely turn out to vote can be lumped into a Latino supermajority district in which a white ethnic minority can be elected with near unanimous white support and just a modest amount of Latino support. This creates the illusion of an opportunity for Latinos to elect a candidate, when in reality they don't stand a chance against a powerful white ethnic incumbent.

I remember the redrawing of aldermanic districts in Chicago after the 1980 census. By reconfiguring the same nine wards in which most Latinos resided in the 1970s, aldermen increased the Latino population, increased the percentage of the population Latinos comprised, and decreased the number of Latino registered voters in each ward at the same time!

Last April, when the redistricting process officially started, there were 175,793 Latinos registered to vote in Chicago. Of that number, 75,086 resided in the seven supermajority districts represented by Latinos. Interestingly, non-Latinos made up most of the registered voters in four so-called Latino supermajority districts and a near majority in one other such district.

Given Latino population density, it is now possible to dilute Latino voting strength without diluting the population. For example, in the newly created Latino supermajority 14th Ward, which had a Latino majority long before the latest round of redistricting, non-Latinos made up 61 percent of the registered voters. The nearly identical situation exists in the new Latino supermajority 30th Ward, in which non-Latinos made up 68 percent of the registered voters. The two are packed with Latinos who are not registered.

The redistricting plans adopted by the Illinois Legislature and the Chicago City Council create four Latino supermajority legislative districts and two supermajority aldermanic districts, respectively. The number of new Latino legislative districts is adequate, but the number of new aldermanic districts is not. There should be four new Latino supermajority aldermanic districts. But whether it is only the four and two districts, or the four and four that Latinos deserve, the new Latino supermajority districts need to be analyzed to ensure that they do not merely create the illusion of equal opportunity.

Juan Andrade is president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, a national organization based in Chicago.

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