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Analysis

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
voting
David J. Phillip/AP

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.