Founding Director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative Sonja Diaz was featured in a Los Angeles Times column about the role that California Latinos will play in the midterm elections. New congressional maps were drawn based on the results of the 2020 Census, and the number of Latino-majority districts in California increased from 10 to 16. The six new districts with Latino majorities could help Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming elections. However, some experts are concerned that it may take time to mobilize voters in these districts, which are concentrated in the Central Valley and encompass rural and historically disenfranchised communities that may be hard to organize. “Latinos are at the periphery of California politics even though they’re central to the economy and to its future,” Diaz explained. She said that Democrats should seek Latino candidates who can speak to the concerns of Latino communities.
A panel of experts stressed the urgency of protecting voter rights at the Luskin Summit virtual event “Safeguarding Our Democracy” on Feb. 15. Chad Dunn, legal director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, led the discussion about legislative attempts to restrict voting rights across the country, particularly in communities of color. “People of color made their voices heard in record numbers in the 2020 election, and in response to that, we are seeing a swift backlash to ensure that those voices are not heard again,” said Kristen Johnson, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It’s 2022, but we are dealing with 1964 issues with respect to voting. We can’t allow voter suppression to happen as if it is inevitable,” said Johnson, a UCLA Law alumna. Ernest Herrera, counsel for the Western Regional Office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that voter suppression tactics are especially evident in states with growing Latino populations, including Washington and Texas. “There is discrimination and prevention of minorities from exercising their political power,” he said. “Unfortunately, many jurisdictions won’t comply with the Voting Rights Act until they are forced to.” Herrera recommended working to protect voter rights at the state level and getting involved in local government. Dunn concluded that “this has always been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back struggle, and there will be opportunities to move forward.” Civic leader Kafi Blumenfield, a member of the Luskin School of Public Affairs Board of Advisors, offered a closing statement for the event. — Zoe Day
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.”
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.”
Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Univision about the political power of the growing Latino electorate. Newly released data from the 2020 Census confirmed that the non-Hispanic white population shrunk the most over the last decade in the United States while the populations identifying as Hispanic, Latino or multiracial grew. According to Diaz, the census data is integral to political voice and ensuring fair redistricting. “When we redraw the lines, we should see Latino political voice and political power protected under the Voting Rights Act and their ability to elect their candidate of choice,” Diaz said. While the census’ undercount of some communities is still unclear, Diaz predicted that the United States will continue to see population growth among Asian Americans and Latinos in the next few decades.
Founding Director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative Sonja Diaz was featured in an NBC News article discussing the importance of accurate representation through redistricting. The Census Bureau’s release of data from the 2020 Census illustrated the growth of the Latino electorate over the past 10 years and “we want to ensure, through data and advocacy, that Latino political power does not decrease in the 2021 redistricting cycle,” Diaz said. The census data is a valuable tool for Latinos advocating for redistricting that reflects changing demographics. “It’s not a simple math problem. There’s politics involved and every state has a different process for how lines are drawn, whether it is the legislature or independent redistricting commissions,” she explained. “Ultimately, this country has had a storied history of vote dilution against communities of color, including Latinos and especially African Americans.”
Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin, has been appointed to the commission that will redraw Los Angeles City Council district boundaries to ensure that constituents are fairly represented. “As a fourth-generation Eastsider, I am humbled to serve the city as we seek to uphold diverse communities’ fundamental right to elect their candidates of choice,” said Diaz, a civil rights attorney with extensive experience in voter protection efforts. “I’ve focused my career on advancing equitable policy solutions, and redistricting is a critical component to ensuring front-line communities have leaders that will fight to keep them safe, housed and visible in the new decade.” As part of the redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years after the U.S. Census is completed, commissioners closely analyze demographic data and offer members of the public opportunities to weigh in. Their proposal for a new electoral map for Los Angeles must be submitted to the City Council by June 2021. Diaz was appointed to the commission by Councilman Kevin de León. “Sonja has long been an advocate for equity in Los Angeles, using her voice to protect the civil rights of countless Angelenos,” de León said. “As we redraw the invisible lines that unite our diverse districts into a cohesive city, Sonja’s leadership and deep knowledge of the Voting Rights Act will be critical to ensuring more equal and reflective representation … for the entire city of L.A.”
Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke with Spectrum News’ Inside the Issues about the importance of Latino representation on the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The 14-member commission is tasked with redrawing district lines for state and federal offices based on 2020 Census data. Diaz said that California’s distinctive geographic contours mean that Latinos in rural or urban communities may have different political priorities. “Making sure that you have voices that know the needs of Fresno or the Imperial Valley is really important when you’re drawing political lines around what interests communities and who they want to elect to represent them,” she said. Diaz also commented on the state’s arduous process for selecting citizens to sit on the commission, which is “not centered to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of diverse Californians.” She concluded, “Sometimes when people want to make government better, they make it harder for communities of color.”
Los Angeles Initiative Director Zev Yaroslavksy spoke with KPCC’s Airtalk about the process of redistricting in relation to recent corruption charges against suspended City Council member Jose Huizar. Every 10 years, district lines are redrawn to reflect changes in population based on the census, and some have noted that the shuffling of districts gave Huizar a large swath of Los Angeles’ asset-rich downtown. “There’s nothing uglier or more difficult than the redistricting process every 10 years,” said Yaroslavsky, who described the political and sentimental factors at play. Most elected officials “want to keep as much of their district as they can” and some have close ties to the neighborhoods and constituents they may have represented for a decade or more. When politicians redistrict for themselves, self-interest can play a role, but Yaroslavsky also noted that there are “unintended consequences of so-called independent commissions.” He concluded, “There is no perfect system for redistricting.”
Sonja Diaz, founding director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, wrote a commentary for CalMatters about the lack of Latino representation on the California redistricting commission candidate list. The commission is in charge of redrawing state and federal political boundaries, which is especially critical as California faces the potential loss of a congressional seat after the 2020 Census count is complete. Diaz pointed out that, while Latinos are California’s largest ethnic group at 40% of the population, they represent only 17% of the candidate pool for the redistricting commission. She explained that the lack of geographical representation means that Latinos are being left out of the redistricting process. “The pandemic is not an excuse to ignore the key principle of equal participation,” Diaz argued. “In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect opportunity to commit to ensuring that Latinos and other voters of color have equal access to the democratic process.”
Join voting rights practitioners, expert witnesses and legal scholars from around the country for sessions and workshops on procedural pathways to protecting the right to vote during the 21st century.
Keynote speakers include:
- California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who has strengthened voting rights by increasing voter registration and overseeing the transition from the traditional voting model to vote centers through the Voter’s Choice Act.
- Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who has worked to pass automatic voter registration; during her tenure, there has been a 64% increase in general election turnout among voters 18 to 20.
- Texas Congressman Marc Veasey, who has represented his state’s 33rd district since 2012 and founded the first Congressional Voting Rights Caucus.
December 8 sign up link: https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/
December 9 sign up link: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/
This event is hosted by the UCLA Voting Rights Project, UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.