L.A. County districts need to reflect all communities of interest

In recent weeks, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has pushed a divisive myth about the citizens of Los Angeles County - that Asian Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Anglos and other groups routinely vote in blocs to prevent Latinos from winning elective office. The only solution, they say, is for the County to gerrymander two districts with Latino majorities. This is the theory behind proposed county redistricting plans S2 and T1, authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina, respectively. If one of these plans is not adopted by the County Board of Supervisors, MALDEF has threatened to sue the County, claiming the Voting Rights Act for support.As a coalition of minority voices in one of the most ethnically and racially diverse counties in the country, including a number of Latino groups and Latino leaders, we do not agree with MALDEF. Let's start with the basics. The Voting Rights Act, one of the great legislative achievements of the last century, was designed to give minority groups an "equal opportunity" to elect their preferred candidates. But opportunity for Latinos is not what plans S2 and T1 are seeking; these plans demand majority voting control of a district. Under either of these plans, Latino candidates would be able to run in districts whose eligible voters are over 50 percent Latino. So while the Voting Rights Act requires "equal opportunity," certain Latino interest groups in L.A. County demand control. Ironically, this would be accomplished in plans S2 and T1 by diluting the voting power of APIs and other minority groups. This "control" plan is based on an unproven claim that non-Latino voters band together at election time to prevent Latinos from winning, so that the only way Latino candidates could ever win is in districts drawn with a Latino voting majority. But Latinos regularly win elections in Los Angeles, and they do so in districts where they constitute far less than a voting majority. If MALDEF's theory was correct, we would not have a Latino Mayor of Los Angeles, a Latino County Sheriff, a Latino County Assessor or a host of other successful Latino politicians. These candidates won with support not just from Latinos, but from a diverse group of Angelenos. Let's look at two examples. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa and former City Attorney Delgadillo both won citywide elections, even though the percentage of eligible Latino voters in the City was far below 50 percent. How did they win? By attracting the support of thousands of non-Latinos - the very people some Latino interest groups now accuse of "polarized" voting against Latinos. As a federal court found in rejecting a case brought by MALDEF in 2001, it takes far less than a 50 percent majority to ensure Latinos an equal opportunity where non-Latinos regularly vote for Latino candidates. In this case, involving a district located in the San Fernando Valley, the Federal Court found that over 30 percent of the non-Latino voters in the affected areas regularly "crossed over" to vote for Latino candidates, while only 3 percent of Latinos were willing to vote for a non-Latino candidate if a Latino candidate was running. At that time there was no definitive measure for eligible voters of one ethnicity or another; however, assuming a district in which 35 percent of the eligible voters are Latino and 65 percent are non-Latino, the extent of cross-over voting provides an equal opportunity for the Latino community. Even if only 25 percent of the non-Latino voters "crossed over" in this district, the Latino candidate would still win with 50.25 percent of the vote, or would at least have an equal opportunity to win. And if this district were only 30 percent Latino, a Latino candidate could win with a crossover rate of 33 percent. MALDEF's 2001 lawsuit was promptly thrown out. Even according to MALDEF's own tilted statistics, the level of crossover voting in Los Angeles County is well over 20 percent. Neutral data show the actual number to be much higher. Latinos can have an "equal opportunity" to elect their candidates of choice even where they represent a minority of voters within a given district. Yet some Latino interest groups are demanding a district where Latinos make up over 50 percent of the electorate. That's not about equal electoral opportunity; it's about unilateral electoral control of a district where other voices simply won't be heard. We are speaking up because redistricting in L.A. County needs to reflect all of our communities of interest and the coalitions we've been building for the past 20 years. Everyone's vote should be respected. Contributed by Mario Guerra, Downey city councilman; Carmen Perez, former Long Beach Port Commissioner; Mariko Kahn, president, Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council; Charles and Martha House, Hacienda Heights residents; and Edward H.J. Wilson, Signal Hill city councilman.

********** Published: September 29, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 24