Monday, August 8, 2011

Sacramento Bee: Redistricting does not create diverse districts

White voters will dominate in California's redrawn political districts

Published: Monday, Aug. 8, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
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Most of California's legislators and congressional representatives will be elected over the next decade from districts dominated by white voters, the state's new political maps show.
Districts drawn by the state's first-ever redistricting commission may bolster the clout of other racial groups – particularly Latinos – but probably not end the longtime political dominance by whites.

Caucasians currently hold nearly two of every three legislative seats, for example, even though California's white population fell to below 50 percent of the state total more than a decade ago.

"The overrepresentation of whites, I think, will continue," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the African American Redistricting Collaborative. "Hopefully, that will be a focal point of the redistricting process (in 2021)."

In six of every 10 new legislative and congressional districts drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, whites comprise more than 50 percent of the adult citizen population, exceeding the total of all other groups combined, according to statistics by Redistricting Partners, a research and consulting firm.

The imbalance is due largely to population distribution – not racial discrimination – analysts say, adding that candidates of any color are potential contenders in districts dominated by their party.

"Minorities, more and more, are getting the ability to get elected almost anywhere," said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic strategist and leader of Redistricting Partners.

In the capital area, for example, Richard Pan of Sacramento and Mariko Yamada of Davis are Asian Americans who captured Assembly seats in districts where that racial group represents only a small fraction of the citizen voting age population.

No legislative district in California currently has a majority of African Americans in its adult citizen population, yet six black lawmakers hold Assembly seats and two hold Senate seats. Latinos constitute a majority of the citizen voting age population in 14 districts but hold 23 legislative seats.

Political analyst Tony Quinn, a former GOP legislative aide, said that it is virtually impossible to draw equal numbers of "majority minority" districts because whites tend to dominate the state's rural counties, coastline and Los Angeles suburbs.

Whites account for two-thirds of the state's likely voters, the Public Policy Institute of California says. "Whites still account for about 60 percent of votes cast," Quinn said.

Many voters may be colorblind, but the redistricting process is not. Federal law protects the voting power of racial groups in geographic areas where they dominate – and the U.S. Justice Department must approve any new maps affecting four counties: Yuba, Merced, Monterey and Kings.

For the first time, California's political districts were drawn this year by the citizens commission, not the Legislature. Final approval is scheduled Aug. 15.

Under the new maps, whites comprise more than 50 percent of the adult citizen population in 48 of 80 new Assembly districts; 23 of 40 Senate districts; and 32 of 53 congressional districts.

The state's fastest-growing ethnic group, Latinos, benefits more than any other, perhaps, from the new maps.
Nineteen legislative or congressional districts currently have a Latino citizen population exceeding 50 percent. That number will rise to 29 – a jump of six in the Assembly and four in Congress, but no increase in the Senate, according to Redistricting Partners.

Arturo Vargas, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the maps do not adequately represent Latino growth and are being analyzed for potential legal challenge.

Steven Ochoa, redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that "most definitely the Senate plan is the worst" for Latinos.

One key complaint is the failure to increase the number of majority-Latino Senate districts. Another is that Latino voting populations will be significantly reduced in a San Fernando Valley district and an Orange County district.

African Americans, with only 6 percent of the state's population, have a good chance of retaining their current legislative and congressional seats after the new maps take effect, Harris-Dawson said.
"I think that, in the end, the clout will remain the same or grow," he said of African Americans.

The biggest blowup in the redistricting commission focused on whether to create a Los Angeles congressional district with a majority of African American voters.

African American groups argued against using that strict standard. Creating intensely packed districts is meant to preserve voting clout of racial groups, but ironically, it could have jeopardized two of three Los Angeles congressional seats currently held by African Americans: Maxine Waters, Karen Bass and Laura Richardson.

"Frankly, we spent most of our energy trying to defeat that rationale," Harris-Dawson said.

Ultimately, African American leaders won the showdown, resulting in large black populations in those districts – 28 percent to 35 percent – but dispersing them enough to likely preserve at least two, perhaps three, Los Angeles congressional seats for black lawmakers.

The new maps give Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders their first majority-minority legislative district, a San Gabriel Valley Assembly seat currently held by Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park.

But congressional maps split the Little Saigon area of Orange County, the largest Vietnamese immigrant community in the United States, said Deanna Kitamura of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

"I would sum it up as a mixed bag," she said of the new maps.

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