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It’s Time to Stop Gerrymandering Latinos out of Political Power

Latinos powered population growth in the last decade, but it remains to be seen whether they get the political representation they deserve.

November 4, 2021

The American population is becoming more Latino, and fast. Yet Latino communities across the country remain shut out of real political power, sidelined from representation by rigged districts expressly designed to suppress their vote.

The result of this discriminatory gerrymandering is the near complete exclusion of Latinos from public office. In 2020, Latinos made up just 1 percent of all local and federal elected officials, despite being 18 percent of the population.

In fact, the 2020 census results show that Latinos made up over half of the country’s population growth from 2010 to 2020, adding 11.6 million people to their total numbers — more by far than any other ethnic group in absolute terms. Latinos are already the largest minority group in 21 states, and in California and New Mexico they have already surpassed non-Latino whites as the largest single ethnic group in the state. In Texas, they are poised to do the same.

The booming Latino population is a dominant force in the economy, responsible for almost three-quarters of all labor force expansion since the Great Recession. Latinos are increasingly getting college degrees, becoming homeowners, and running for elected office. And Latino growth is having an impact on politics — as a growing portion of the electorate, Latinos were decisive in President Biden’s victory in 13 states, and they showed up in record numbers in the 2020 election across the country.

But with this size and emerging electoral power has come a backlash. In states where growth among Latinos and other people of color threaten the political status quo, lawmakers are already beginning to gerrymander Latino communities out of their political voice, packing them into fewer districts to circumscribe their electoral power or dispersing Latino communities across multiple districts to dilute their voting strength. In Texas, for example, lawmakers recently passed a new congressional map that reduced the number of Latino-majority districts — despite the fact that the state has actually added 2 million Latinos since 2010.

This isn’t a new tactic. Last decade, Texas failed to create any new electoral opportunities for Latinos despite rapid and concentrated Latino growth, leading to years of drawn-out litigation over the discriminatory scheme. Likewise, successful litigation in Florida demonstrated that lawmakers packed Latino voters into already heavily Democratic districts to shore up Republican districts at the expense of Latino voters. Even in states under Democratic control, like Illinois and Washington, Latinos are often shuffled between different districts to bolster safe Democratic seats and denied the equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

Even with record turnout in 2020, Latino voters were, by many accounts, neglected by Republican and Democratic campaigns alike. This comes at a time when Latino communities are in particular need of responsiveness from lawmakers. Over the course of the pandemic, Latinos have been 2.8 times more likely to die of Covid-19 and suffered more economic and job losses than other Americans. And since the pandemic began, Latino adults were more likely to get evicted and their children more likely to fall behind in school than their white peers.

But rather than address the concerns and desires of this growing body of constituents, many states, like Texas and Florida, have instead created new barriers to the ballot box. Anti-Latino redistricting practices are occurring amid the biggest voter suppression push in decades — much of it aimed at diminishing the growing power of Latino communities.

These attacks on Latino voters have deep roots in historical prejudice and violence going back over a century. Often erased in U.S. history books, violent mobs are estimated to have killed thousands of people of Mexican descent in the early 20th century. Forgotten too is the campaign by state and local officials to “repatriate” (that is, forcibly move to Mexico) an estimated 2 million Mexican Americans during the Great Depression, many of whom were U.S. citizens. Later, even the Voting Rights Act of 1965 failed to initially protect Puerto Ricans from English literacy tests at the New York polls — “language minorities” weren’t included in the law until 10 years after its passage.

Though the Latino population has grown and grown more diverse over the last 50 years, the pattern of discrimination remains strikingly unchanged.

Every day, lawmakers across the country are recycling the bad map-drawing practices that have stymied Latino political opportunity for decades. Voters and advocates can challenge these maps in court. But they will be hampered by courts’ restrictive interpretation of voting rights laws and the ability for map drawers (after the Supreme Court’s greenlighting of partisan gerrymandering) to claim that Latinos were targeted for partisan reasons, not their ethnicity. That’s why it is more urgent than ever that Congress repair and strengthen the nation’s voting rights laws by passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

When the nation’s voting rights laws were written over 60 years ago, less than 5 percent of the country’s population was Latino. This round of redistricting, it’s time for map drawers to finally stop discriminating and start drawing districts that will give Latino voters the opportunity to elect representatives that will fight for the interests of the Latinos they represent.