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The data the Census Bureau released last week offered a remarkably clear picture of how the United States is becoming more diverse. For the first time ever, America’s white population declined, while people of color accounted for almost all of the population growth over the last decade in the country.
For Arturo Vargas, CEO of the Naleo Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, the steady growth among the nation’s Latino population – it increased by 23%, or about 12 million people, over the last decade – sends a clear message to policymakers that they need to consider how their decisions will affect Latinos across the country. In state capitols across the US, the overwhelming majority of state lawmakers are white, according to a 2020 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“You can’t just make a policy, whether it’s on education or health, or even infrastructure, without considering how this is reaching and affecting your Latino constituents, given that they’re such a large share of the US population,” Vargas said.
But the once-a-decade redistricting process, set to unfold over the next few months, will determine whether the population growth among Latinos and other minorities translates into meaningful political power. Republicans, who control most state legislatures, will draw district lines in most places. They could use their line-drawing power to blunt the effects of that significant population growth and make it more difficult for minority voters, who tend to support Democrats, to elect candidates of their choosing (Trump made inroads with Hispanic voters in Texas and elsewhere in 2020.)
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (Maldef), said he was “very concerned” lawmakers across the country would draw districts that deprived Latinos of political power. His group is one of several that will be closely monitoring the redistricting process and is preparing to quickly challenge district plans that appear discriminatory.
“Extraordinary growth of the Latino population, everywhere in the country, means that there should be new opportunities to create Latino-majority districts,” he said. “In general, no one voluntarily cedes power. So wherever you have elected officials drawing their own lines, which is still the prevalent practice nationwide, they are not going to naturally be inclined to create new seats for a growing community like the Latino community.”
Of particular concern to Saenz and Vargas is Texas, where the Hispanic population now nearly equals the white population, the new numbers show.
The state has a long history of discriminating against Latinos during redistricting. In 2011, Republican lawmakers carved up the state’s districts in such a way to increase the voting power of white citizens over Latinos. In one state house district, for example, Republicans replaced Hispanic voters who were likely to vote with ones who were not likely to do so. On paper, they made it look like Latinos had political power, when they did not.
A federal court would later rule Republicans used a “deliberate, race-conscious method” to manipulate the Hispanic and Democratic vote.
“I can almost guarantee we will wind up in litigation in Texas,” Saenz said. “[The] history of redistricting in Texas is that despite dramatic growth in the Latino population, particularly in comparison to non-Latino folks in Texas, the legislature never recognizes that growth by appropriately creating majority looking seats.”
This will also be the first redistricting cycle in decades without some of the strongest federal protections to prevent discrimination against minority groups. Until 2013, places with a history of voting discrimination had to get their maps pre-approved by either the justice department or a three-judge panel in Washington before they went into effect. The US supreme court gutted that requirement in 2013. Now, civil rights groups can challenge maps, but they will probably go into effect while litigation, which can last years, is proceeding.
Kristen Clarke, the head of the justice department’s civil rights division, which is responsible for enforcing the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws, told Congress on Monday that the agency could not adequately protect voting rights using case-by-case litigation to challenge maps.
Vargas said the lack of federal oversight meant his group would have to step up its vigilance and monitoring of the redistricting process.
“We know certain jurisdictions are notorious for racially gerrymandering Latinos out of political representation. Texas being exhibit A in that regard,” he said. “This really forces us to step up our advocacy and our vigilance of some of these jurisdictions who are going to ignore these population changes and draw lines that benefit them politically and in partisan ways.”