August 22, 2011
The Voting Rights Act and Los Angeles County
The following op/ed appeared in yesterday’s Los Angeles
A drama is unfolding in Los Angeles that may well play itself out in other large California communities and across the country.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors recently held a contentious four-hour meeting to decide how to draw the electoral lines for supervisors to last through this decade. The session considered two plans derived from the 2010 census: one drawn to minimize population shifts, the other to maximize the political strength of the Latino community.
Drawing electoral boundaries is, by its very nature, the embodiment of the rough and tumble of politics—deal making and negotiations rolled into one tough, nasty business. Issues from population balance to preserving contiguous cities and communities of interest to ethnic balance get put on the scales.
Into this morass the Voting Rights Act was inserted in 1965 to ensure the votes of, and rectify the decades of discrimination directed at, Southern Blacks. Lyndon Johnson wanted the “goddamndest and toughest” voting rights bill that could be written—and he got it.
In the nearly half century since the law’s passage it has been amended and interpreted in a variety of ways that have been expansive and broad. There is no denying the law’s success and, correspondingly, its diminished need.
As a federal court opinion noted, there are “challenging questions regarding the applicability of voting rights doctrines developed in a fundamentally different context than the rapidly changing multi-racial and multi-ethnic community that is present day Southern California.”
The vision of battered minority groups needing the help of the judiciary as their only recourse doesn’t quite match present-day realities. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials recently reported that California Latino electeds have increased by 89.2 percent from 693 in 1996 to 1,311 in 2010.
Despite that manifest progress, the Voting Rights Act and its potential use are being held as a Sword of Damocles over the discussions of how to draw L.A.‘s supervisorial districts. The ACLU “warned” the supervisors that they may be “violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund issued a Redistricting Action Alert urging its supporters to let the supervisors know that they are on the “verge of VIOLATING the Voting Rights Act, by failing to create a new Latino district.” (Sic).
There is nothing wrong with mobilizing constituents to argue vociferously for or against one plan or another—that’s how the process works. But it does an injustice to the process when a 46-year-old statute that was written for a different era and for vastly different circumstances is invoked as a threat.
The statute’s inapplicability to today’s realities was highlighted nearly a decade ago in
Cano v. Davis
, the case brought in federal court after the last congressional redistricting plan for California (when similar allegations of Latino under-representation were made).
The three-judge panel (all appointed by Democratic presidents) unanimously dismissed the charges. The court concluded that “Latinos are, as a practical matter, a far more formidable political force than they were in the 1980’s.” The Latino community is an even more potent and “formidable political force” today than it was when
was decided in 2002.
Interestingly, a decade ago, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who recently suggested that the county may be inviting a Voting Rights Act lawsuit if it didn’t adopt the Latino-centric plan she favors, wrote in a
Los Angeles Times
’ op-ed about the Cano litigation:
Let the “old fashioned” political process—unimpeded by divisive lawsuits that seek to impose the constraints and policies of a different era—work its way through this complex morass. We, our politics and inter-group relations will be better for it.
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