Trying to Draw Lines That Don’t Disenfranchise

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011 | How does a group of citizens take politics out of redrawing political boundaries and at the same time abide by the federal Voting Rights Act?

In Orange County, the answer to that question is: not easily.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission came to the county last weekend as part of a months-long outreach effort to redraw boundaries based on the 2010 U.S. Census.

Both Latino and Vietnamese groups attended the hearing at Cal State Fullerton to urge creation of districts that give them fair representation in both Sacramento and Washington.

But the two groups are concentrated in adjacent neighborhoods in the central and western sections of Orange County, giving the commission a Solomon-like dilemma over where to lay district boundaries.

Making matters even more complicated is the reality that Vietnamese tend to vote Republican and Latinos generally favor Democrats.

The words “Republican” and “Democrat” are unmentionable under the state law that created the commission, as is anything else that could put a political spin on the way lines are drawn.

The first-draft maps created by the commission were released earlier this month, and the second set will be made public next month. The final boundaries will be determined Aug. 15.

The current draft boundaries do not favor Latinos. Their leaders told the commission that if these boundaries stand, lawsuits will likely be filed under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the drawing of lines that disenfranchise racial and ethnic groups.

But those same leaders also state adamantly that they want to work with the commission so matters don’t get to that point.

“Nobody wants to go down that route,” said Zeke Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We don’t want to go down that route. The commission doesn’t want to go down that route.” Lawsuits, he said, are something to “avert in any way possible.”

For decades in California, redistricting has been a blatantly political process. After the 2000 census, districts were drawn solely to protect incumbents of both parties from election challengers. Hence the irregular shapes of present districts, which often wander for miles and take in pockets of voters favorable to an incumbent.

The law approved by voters in November was intended to remove politics from the process before boundaries are drawn from the 2010 census.

The first criteria is to give each district the same number of registered voters. After that, commissioners are required by state law to try to keep city and county boundaries intact. And they must avoid violating federal voting rights laws that prohibit disenfranchising minority groups.

But communities don’t always adhere to strict geographic lines, and therein lies the rub in Orange County.

Tan Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce and one of many who testified Saturday, said the first-draft maps generally keep the “Little Saigon” community together.

He said Monday, however, he was praising commissioners “for the first draft. This is not a final draft, and anything can happen.”

The chief concern, he said, is to maintain a cohesive Little Saigon voting district within the area’s new Assembly, state Senate and congressional districts.

Little Saigon developed around Bolsa Avenue in Westminster 36 years ago when refugees fled South Vietnam after it fell to the North. Since then, it has expanded to include portions of Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and beyond.

“Little Saigon isn’t so little anymore,” said Nguyen. “There is a large overlap with Hispanic-Latino districts.”

Putting the two groups in the same districts would essentially put them in competition with each other.

Latino leaders like Anaheim City School District board member Jose Moreno, urged the commission to keep Orange County’s Santa Ana and Anaheim Latino voters together. He asked commissioners not to dilute their representation by putting them in a district with Anaheim Hills, where many voters are wealthy and have different concerns.

Anaheim and Santa Ana are separated by portions of Orange and Garden Grove but united in the Disney resort area, where many residents of the Anaheim “flatlands” and Santa Ana work, said Moreno and others.

The Latino groups urged the commission to keep central and west Anaheim in the same legislative and congressional districts as Santa Ana and eastern Garden Grove.

“Santa Ana and Anaheim flatlanders continually work together,” Santa Ana City Council member Michele Martinez told the commission. But, she said, “most people will tell you residents of Anaheim Hills never say they’re residents of Anaheim.”

Among other issues, schools in the downtown and resort areas of Anaheim as well as eastern Garden Grove and Santa Ana have large numbers of students who are just learning English, said Moreno, an associate professor of Latino Education & Policy Studies at Long Beach State.

And a majority of students in the three areas — 80 percent in central Anaheim — are enrolled in programs that provide low-cost or free lunches. All three areas have large numbers of homeless children enrolled in their schools.

Finally, he said, a majority of the students in the Santa Ana and central Anaheim schools are Latino.

“The same kind of representation is desperately needed,” he said in an interview Monday. “The kind of issues a legislator will pay attention to in the Anaheim Hills are different from the issues the kids in the flatlands are experiencing.

“Poor people don’t tend to fund campaigns,” he said, “and the people who fund campaigns don’t tend to live in poor neighborhoods.”

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