On the Evolution of Voter Access in California

Alisa Belinkoff Katz, senior fellow at the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy and associate director of the Los Angeles Initiative, and Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, spoke to ABC7 News about the complicated history of voter suppression in California. Despite major strides in voting access, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a report co-authored by Belinkoff Katz found that California voters do not reflect the diversity of its people. She described the origins of the “exclusion of low-income people from the vote,” starting with Chinese immigrants and some Native Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Diaz added that some people are still being left out today because of the color of their skin, their class or their ZIP code, as well as redistricting decisions that dilute their voting power. 

Diaz on Latina’s Nomination to State’s High Court

Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke to media outlets including the Sacramento Bee and Associated Press about the first Latina nominated to serve on the California Supreme Court. Gov. Gavin Newsom said his selection for the open seat, Appeals Court Justice Patricia Guerrero, is a “keen legal mind and well-regarded jurist.” The daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up in the agricultural Imperial Valley has worked as a federal prosecutor, law firm partner and Superior Court judge, and now sits on the 4th District Court of Appeal. Latinas sit on high courts in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New York and Texas, Diaz said, but despite the growing influence of the Latino electorate in California, no Latina has yet served in a statewide constitutional office or as U.S. senator. “Despite the important contributions that Latinas make to power California’s economy, they continue to be underrepresented in positions of power,” she said.


Diaz on Caruso’s Entry Into the L.A. Mayor’s Race

Sonja Diaz, executive director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, spoke to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times about billionaire developer Rick Caruso’s entry into the race for L.A. mayor. Caruso has said that elected politicians have failed voters on issues such as homelessness and crime. His résumé, which includes serving as head of the city’s Police Commission and chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Southern California, evokes an older generation of Los Angeles power brokers. Diaz said the success of any mayoral candidate will depend, at least in part, on the ability to appeal to Latino voters. “Obviously, COVID-19 has had a disparate impact on Latino households in this city,” she told the L.A. Times. “So a mayor is going to have to articulate a policy agenda that centers Latino workers and Latino households in ways that they can remain in the city and not just survive but thrive.”


Diaz Calls on Sen. Sinema to Protect Democracy

Sonja Diaz, director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times about the urgent need to protect voter rights. The 2020 Census found that the country’s white population is declining, while the number of Latinos and Asian Americans is increasing. However, voter suppression tactics, including closing polling places, purging voter rolls and passing restrictive voter ID laws, are threatening democracy, especially affecting voters of color, Diaz wrote. She directed her comments at Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has helped block congressional action even as lawmakers in her own state have put forward audacious attempts to curb access to the ballot. “We are facing an all-out assault on free and fair elections that coincides with the growth and consequence of voters of color,” Diaz wrote. “[Sinema’s] inaction allows the will of a minority of the population to have an outsized influence on who can participate in our democracy.”

Tackling Voter Dilution in California UCLA Voting Rights Project fights to ensure equitable representation in Orange and Yolo counties

By Jose Garcia

As counties across California finalize new electoral boundaries in a once-in-a-decade process known as redistricting, the UCLA Voting Rights Project (VRP) is successfully providing guidance to decision-makers to ensure full compliance with federal and state laws.

California has experienced rapid demographic changes, such as Latinos becoming the largest ethnic majority in the state, and county boards get one shot to draw fair and equitable district maps for the next decade. In the past, California has seen patterns of voter dilution that many wish to see corrected.

The Voting Rights Project, the flagship project of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI), is placing direct pressure on decision-makers through high-level analysis of district maps and leveraging of local media, with the goal of ensuring that equitably drawn maps are implemented.

In Orange County, a region that is 34% Latino, the county Board of Supervisors has not seen Latino representation in over 15 years. This is largely attributed to the way district boundaries have been drawn in the past.

In response, the Voting Rights Project published a report analyzing proposed maps for the county’s supervisorial districts and detailed the steps needed to ensure full compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Several of the proposed maps, while appearing to be compliant, did not actually meet requirements to give areas with a high percentage of people of color a chance of electing a representative from their community,” said Sonni Waknin, voting rights counsel for the VRP.

Some of the proposed maps ensured that Latinos were less able to elect candidates of their choice by “cracking,” or splitting, adjacent cities with ethnic majorities, such as Santa Ana and Anaheim, according to Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.

The Voting Rights Project urged the Orange County Board of Supervisors to implement specific boundary changes that would create the county’s first majority-Latino supervisorial district — which the board subsequently adopted in a historic vote.

“We are incredibly proud to have ensured that Orange County recognized the need for Latinos to elect candidates of their choice, as required by the federal Voting Rights Act,” Waknin said.

Her team harnessed the success in Orange County and began deploying similar strategies across the state throughout the fall of 2021.

Yolo County, a region at high risk of voter dilution under proposed district boundaries, was a priority. While voters had been able to elect a Latino candidate under existing maps, the margin of victory was narrow, considering that Latinos accounted for 69% of the county’s total population growth over the last 10 years.

As it did in Orange County, Waknin’s team analyzed proposed maps and demographics in Yolo County and found that several plans under consideration would crack the Latino population of existing districts and lower the Latino voting-age population below thresholds required by the Voting Rights Act.

A VRP memo sent to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors argued that three of the four originally proposed maps would absolutely dilute the power of Latino voters. Following the memo and a coordinated media strategy, the supervisors unanimously voted to adopt district borders closely resembling the VRP’s recommendations.

“Latino communities have driven the growth of California for the past decade,” Waknin said. “Their political voice must be heard at every level, including local governments.”

At the local level, cities and counties use new census data to redraw district lines to reflect changes in their populations. California’s congressional districts are redrawn every decade by an independent commission of citizens from across the state.

Currently, over half of the U.S. has finished the redistricting process, and many of the approved maps will ultimately undercut communities of color, according to Waknin. Her team is continuing its involvement in places facing potential voter dilution outside of California, including in key states such as Texas and Washington.

“Through this work, the UCLA Voting Rights Project is playing a critical role in protecting the integrity of the state’s and nation’s democracy,” Diaz said. “The project is fundamentally influencing how political boundaries are redrawn to create an equitable electoral system for all.”

Latinos Underrepresented on L.A. Times Opinion Pages

A UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative analysis of the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times between January 2020 and May 2021 found that Latinos were severely underrepresented. During the period that included a presidential election in which the Latino vote was critical and a COVID-19 crisis that devastated the community, just 4% of the paper’s op-eds were written by Latino authors, while 95% made no explicit mention of Latinos, according to the report, which was also cited in the L.A. Times’ Latinx Files blog. Opinion pages play a significant role in shaping policy, and Latinos’ lack of inclusion leaves them voiceless on crucial issues affecting their communities, the report concluded. “Papers like the Los Angeles Times have a responsibility to ensure that Latinos are given a proportional and fair opportunity to shape the conversation,” said LPPI Executive Director Sonja Diaz. A response from The Times pointed to recent hires aimed at increasing diversity in the newsroom.


Diaz Pushes for Fair Redistricting in Orange County

UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative Director Sonja Diaz spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the potential impacts of redistricting in Orange County. Nearly a third of Orange County residents are Latino, but current district boundaries divide areas with large Latino populations in Santa Ana and Anaheim. Diaz explained that dividing adjacent cities with ethnic majorities, a process known as cracking, has been a major factor in Latino voter turnout and can dilute political power. The county Board of Supervisors is currently undergoing the decennial redistricting process with data from the 2020 Census and is expected to approve a majority Latino district for the first time. “Orange County has for far too long been dictated by the policy preferences of an aging, white electorate that leans conservative,” Diaz said. “And I say this as a jurisdiction that is increasingly multiethnic and multiracial, with large communities of Asian American and Latino electorates.”

Unionization Is Essential for Recovery, Diaz Says

Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, co-authored a commentary in Latino Rebels about the need for union organization among Latino workers. Unions help alleviate the racial and ethnic pay gap by helping workers access non-discriminatory, collectively bargained contracts for the essential work that they do, Diaz wrote. “The benefits of unionization make it clear that economic recovery is not complete if workers aren’t given the opportunity to organize and demand better conditions, particularly given how essential many low-income service workers are to the economy,” she argued. A recent report found that Black and Latino workers in union jobs earned better wages and were less likely to lose their jobs and income during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to non-union workers. “Unionized jobs must pave the path forward to ensure that workers have the stability and economic resilience needed to withstand future crises,” she concluded.

Diaz on Mobilizing Voters Around Padilla

Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, was featured in a Politico article discussing the importance of maximizing voter turnout in the 2022 midterm elections. Democrats are hoping to leverage the popularity of Sen. Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator, to increase voter turnout and deliver Democratic wins in districts with high Latino populations. “Sen. Padilla is going to be central in not only ensuring that Latino voters who were mobilized in the ’21 recall election are going to be primed for the ’22 midterms, but getting other voters across the country out, too,” Diaz explained. Nuestro PAC is leading a statewide campaign to elect Padilla and flip five congressional districts by targeting Latino voters. “There’s a need for the Democratic Party to coalesce around Sen. Padilla’s future, ensuring he gets the relevant face-time and exposure to create a national donor base,” Diaz said. “It’s essential to increase enthusiasm in the party.”

California Latinos’ Use of Emergency Medical Services Rose During Pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Latinos in California were relatively unlikely to use emergency medical services. But during the pandemic, across much of the state, Latinos’ use of such services — specifically seeking treatment for respiratory ailments — increased more than it did for non-Latino whites, according to a new report by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. The report’s authors compared figures for the first six months of 2020 to statistics for the same period in 2019. They analyzed data from the California Emergency Medical Services Information System, which includes information from all of the state’s 33 local emergency medical service agencies with the exception of Los Angeles County. “Although the study doesn’t directly account for about 30% of California’s Latinos who live in Los Angeles, other studies on the impact of COVID-19 on Latinos in L.A. would suggest that the same phenomenon would hold true in Los Angeles,” said Esmeralda Melgoza, a doctoral student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and a co-author of the report. The study’s findings suggest that emergency medical services statewide have an opportunity to improve their language and cultural literacy to better serve the needs of their Latino patients. The study identified factors that kept Latinos from using emergency services prior to the pandemic, including concerns about the costs of emergency care and fears that interaction with public safety officials could endanger their immigration status. After the pandemic began, their use of emergency services for urgent respiratory illness pointed to the toll COVID-19 took on Latino essential workers and families. — Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas

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