A Dilution of Power? Advocates Say Revision of District Map Failed to Represent Latino Population

Feb 1, 2013

Before 2010, Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood was split into five state House districts and three Senate districts.
Credit Ashlee Rezin / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Latinos added more than a half-million people to the state of Illinois in the last decade, becoming the state’s second-largest ethnic/racial group.

But the increase from 12 percent of Illinois’ population in 2000 to 16 percent in 2010 was not adequately reflected in the state’s most recent drawing of its legislative map, some Latino advocates say.

At multiple hearings, a broad coalition of supporters suggested a map that proposed 13 legislative districts with at least a 60 percent majority. However, even with the power of the population jump behind them, Latinos ended up with five House districts and two Senate districts that totaled 65 percent or more, one fewer than the previous map. The new map does include far more districts with Latinos totaling 50 percent or more — from six districts to 12.

“The bottom line is that we had no net gain in representation,” says Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum. “Before redistricting, there were 14 members of the Latino [legislative] caucus, and 12 of the 14 were Latino. After redistricting, there are still 12 Latino members of that caucus, despite a 33 percent increase in population.”

“The map was very far off from what it could have been,” agreed Alonzo Rivas, Midwest regional counsel for MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

But while many observers grant that the map didn’t reach its potential of maximizing the Latino vote, no one but Republicans challenged the map in court, using in part the argument that Latino voting power was diluted by the 2010 map. The courts disagreed.

MALDEF, which has challenged Illinois redistricting results five times since the 1980s, Rivas says, decided to stay out of this round. In part, the courts would have looked at a state and regional climate able to elect Miguel del Valle as Chicago city clerk and Anita Alvarez as Cook County state’s attorney as examples of how the electorate isn’t necessarily racially polarized when it comes to Latino candidates, he says.

Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, states are charged with drawing new legislative and congressional districts. In Illinois, the latest redistricting process didn’t rely on the infamous luck-of-the -draw of previous decades, in which the tie-breaking member of a commission is decided by chance. In 2011, the task of drawing the legislative and congressional districts was solely in the hands of the Democrats, since the party controlled the governor’s office, the House and the Senate. The single-party mapmakers were on a more abbreviated time schedule than in years past because they wanted a map drawn by May 31 to avoid the supermajority needed to pass a map after that date.

As to what the committee considers as it pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of 59 Senate districts and 118 House districts, Illinois’ Constitution only demands that the districts be “compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population.” Left for the mapmakers to decide is how to protect incumbents, maximize party gains, placate minority groups and refrain from violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

When looking at the Democrats’ most recent effort, it’s clear it was a “get the Republicans” map aimed at protecting incumbents and maximizing party lines, says Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

A partisan whose chief aim is to garner as many Democrat seats as possible would not want to have strong Latino districts with large majorities but to spread those often-reliably Democrat votes among as many districts as possible, he says.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the chair of the Senate redistricting committee, did not return repeated calls for comment.

The current legislative map splits Little Village into two Senate districts and two House districts.
Credit Ashlee Rezin / WUIS/Illinois Issues

  Puente, who also serves on the Illinois Issues’ advisory board, is left shaking her head as to what else her coalition could have done differently. Latino and other minority advocates attended and testified at hearings, formed a coalition of dozens of neighborhood groups that encompassed blacks, Asians and Latinos, and planned months in advance to crunch their own numbers and create their own “unity map” that showed additional Latino districts could be drawn, she says. Why Latinos weren’t given more power under the new map is a contradiction, she says.

“It’s a paradox, especially given the most recent presidential election and given what we know about Latino voting,” Puente says.

The Illinois Latino Agenda did consider the creation of majority districts in Aurora, Franklin Park, Waukegan and Elgin a success, she says, but it came at the expense of splitting predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Chicago such as Back of the Yards and Little Village.

Latinos have a few demographic characteristics that led advocates to push for higher percentages than a simple 51 percent majority. Studies show that majority-minority districts with totals of 60 percent to 65 percent are necessary to elect a candidate of their choice. For one, the Latino population skews young. There is also an issue with legal status, and how many of the residents are actually eligible to vote. In other words, a district may show a 51 percent majority, but when youth and legal status is factored in, the “majority” status is an empty one.

Statehouse representation is also trickier with Latinos because as an ethnic group, they have spread into the suburbs, and pockets of Latino communities exist far beyond the traditional, concentrated city neighborhood such as Little Village or Back of the Yards.

That’s not to say that a district with less than 50 percent can’t influence an election, says Jorge Chapa, a sociologist at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. But it’s largely dependent on the dynamics of the district, he cautions. 

The courts are famously fuzzy when it comes to redistricting questions. Chapa says that while the Voting Rights Act requires that minority voting rights be protected, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1993 decision, Shaw v. Reno, that states cannot “racially gerrymander.” The court looked at a North Carolina district drawn nearly down interstate lines to encompass black voters. Chapa questioned why it’s considered racial gerrymandering to draw a black district, while white mapmakers have drawn crazy shapes to create white ethnic districts for decades.

“There are a lot of ways to divide a state, and a lot of considerations — the courts, party politics, incumbents,” Chapa says. “There are a lot of ways to do it, but unless you prioritize maximizing Latino representation, it’s not going to happen. And the caveat is that if you do try to maximize it, you could be opening yourself to a legal challenge.”

And that is why the General Assembly needs to allow the public to know what its priorities and rationale are as it creates a map, says Whitney Woodward, policy associate for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“The public sees the squiggly lines and assumes it’s gerrymandered” solely for political purposes, Woodward says. If the mapmakers would explain that a certain boundary was drawn to create a coalition district or to keep a community of interest together, the process would be so much clearer to the larger public, she says.

While there were “baby steps” this year, with additional hearings and a hearing after the draft map was released, Woodward says that too much of the traditional closed-door process remained. There were dozens of hearings, but none except one at the end included a draft map. With just a few days between the draft release and the final vote, it was clear there would not be major tinkering based on input from the public, she says.

“I was heartened that there were some efforts, but when push came to shove, it was the same old song and dance,” Woodward says. “I recognize it’s a terribly complex process, and that you can’t satisfy everyone. You can’t please everyone, but you can provide the information about what your objectives are, what your goals are, to at least understand your process.”

Looking down West 26th Street in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
Credit Ashlee Rezin / WUIS/Illinois Issues

Josina Morita, an urban planner and executive coordinator of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, had her first experience with the redistricting process this cycle. She was the mapmaker behind the “Unity Map” endorsed by the coalition of Latino groups that would have drawn 13 districts with more than 60 percent Latinos without, as the coalition leaders are quick to point out, reducing the number of majority-black districts.

An additional district that met that 60 percent threshold was drawn between the initial map and the final product, Morita says, when House District 22 was redrawn to include a 66.8 percent Latino majority from 58 percent in the draft. The representative elected from that gained district was Speaker of the House Mike Madigan.

Though this was her first redistricting, Morita says she thinks the process was more accessible than in previous efforts. There was a public mapping room, plenty of hearings and access to key players, she says. Most important, there was a hearing seeking input on an actual draft of a map.

“From a voting rights perspective, I would say the [final map] was fair. I would also say that in the process and in the product, communities of color made gains,” Morita says.

One Latino community provides an example of how Latinos fared overall — some gains, but not all that they wanted. Little Village, the Chicago neighborhood that is also the Midwest’s largest concentration of Mexican-Americans, is in a better position with the new map, but it was not drawn into one district as advocates had wanted. Michael Rodriguez, executive director of Enlace Chicago, says Little Village is clearly a “community of interest,” a local population that shares common social and economic interests, and belongs in a single legislative district.

Before 2010, Little Village was splintered into five state House districts and three state Senate districts, he says, making it difficult for the community to have any leverage with elected officials.

Residents were confused about who their elected representative was, he says, and weren’t able to use the power of their community to influence their elected officials.

“At the end of the day, the power of democracy is the ability to leverage your self-interest with your elected official,” Rodriguez says. “Our power was marginalized.”

The current map has Little Village split into two House districts and two Senate districts, he says. At one point in the process, Little Village was drawn into one district, but that would have come at the expense of additional districts statewide, advocates say.

Rodriguez says he was proud to be a part of a broad coalition that included blacks, Latinos, Asians and Arab-Americans that convened well before the process began and had a map in hand that showed each group could get what it wanted without eating into existing minority districts.

“We put ourselves in a position where our voices were heard,” Rodriguez says. “We drew a map; we articulated our needs and wants. We had more than words; we had researched and drawn the maps. I think the organizing was strong.”

Rivas, of MALDEF, says the level of organization was an improvement for the Latino community from previous redistricting efforts. 

“The map was a coalition map, and that was a positive in the respect that the community is starting to recognize you need to stick together to make gains for each respective community,” Rivas says.

Those broad coalitions need to be an institutional force if Latinos want to assert themselves politically in the future, says Jaime Dominguez, a lecturer at Northwestern University whose research interests include race, ethnicity, and urban, Latino and minority politics. Instead of community groups that represent “low-level advocacy” and show up in force for a “march here, a protest there,” usually about immigration, a coalition with other minority groups is the way to assert power, he says.

The youth of Latinos as a group, along with the legal status issues, neutralizes Latinos’ potential, Dominguez says, especially in Illinois’ political climate, with its traditional Democratic politics at play in Chicago and Springfield. 

Until they can solidify coalitions with other minority groups, the status quo will continue, and Latinos will be at the mercy of Democrats who take them for granted, he says.

Dominguez also pointed to dissension among the Latino advocacy community, specifically when the United Neighborhood Organization, one of Chicago’s largest Latino groups, publicly voiced support for a map that had only six districts with more than 65 percent Latinos. 

Juan Rangel, UNO’s CEO, says the final map was a fair one that took all minority groups into account and passed legal muster. It’s easy for groups to question the map more than a year later, he says, but the map that UNO supported was one that was negotiated fairly.

“We can stand on principle, but at the end, it’s got to be something that’s going to pass,” he says. “I have no problem with what we were able to negotiate.”

What’s important is not how many Latino members in the caucus there are, he said, but that there are Latino districts able to elect the candidate they want, regardless of who that candidate is, he says, adding that Latinos will need to increase their numbers at the voting booth going forward.

“If we don’t vote, then we don’t have a leg to stand on,” Rangel says.

Puente and other advocates are already looking ahead to 2020 and considering what lessons can be learned from the 2010 process. There is always the hope for a successful constitutional amendment that would wrestle mapmaking power from the traditional power brokers. Absent an amendment, the coalition will have to be armed yet again with data and a map of its own, she says.

When surveyed, the Illinois public says it wants simple shapes in its map.

So why not just turn the process over to a colorblind and politically blind computer program? Woodward says it’s not that easy.

“This is not just a numbers game,” Woodward says. “This should be about communities, and it should be

about a dialogue. We can’t just kick it over to a computer. Populations don’t exist in circles and squares.”

Meanwhile, the Latino community will continue to grow, and if history is any indication, continue its spread from the city. Nationally, Latinos as a voting bloc will likely double in size within a generation, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

What that will mean on a 2020 Illinois map is anyone’s guess. 

Alexa Aguilar is a free-lance writer from the Chicago suburbs.

Illinois Issues, February 2013