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The Latino Dilemma – The premise (i.e. part1)

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Recent hearings held by the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission in Newark and Jersey City were dominated by concerns of the Latino community. However, the community did not speak with one voice – or at least that voice was somewhat muddled.

One thing the speakers did agree on is that Latinos are under-represented in the Legislature. While Latinos make up 18% of the state population, they only hold 7 8 seats in the legislature (i.e. 6% 7%). By comparison, African-Americans are 15% of the state population and hold 15 legislative seats (or 13%). As a side note, Asians now make up 9% of the state population and hold 2 legislative seats.

While some speakers at these hearings argued for the creation of districts that would increase the Latino proportion of a district’s population, others warned against putting too many Latinos in one district in a way that would dilute their voting power in other districts. Terms like packing, cracking, stacking, and bleaching were tossed about with abandon.

We’re still plowing through all the implications of the census data, but it doesn’t seem likely that there is much opportunity for increasing the Latino population in most districts. Moreover, the experience over the last 10 years suggests that the main issue with Latino under-representation may have less to do with district demographics than it has to do with party organization power structure.

One thing made clear by the testimony is that many, if not most, of those who testified are unfamiliar with some key legal – especially Constitutional – provisions. First of all, all districts must be contiguous. In other words, you can’t jump around from town to town to pull together a similar community of interest if those towns aren’t connected by other towns.

Federal law also stipulates that districts must have equal populations, or as nearly equal as practicable. Federal courts have provided guidance for state legislative districts that stipulate the difference between the largest and smallest district can be no more than 10% of the ideal district size. The ideal district size in New Jersey is now 219,797. It’s also important to remember that the equal population number is based on all residents – not just adults or registered voters (although there is some precedent for “moving” institutionalized populations to different districts). [Districts must also be “compact,” but the definition of that is more nebulous.]

New Jersey is also impacted by the federal Voting Rights Act, although not in the same way as many southern states. Recent judicial interpretations of this law as it applies to states like New Jersey requires that districts where a minority group is in the majority must retain that majority. Currently, only two districts seem to meet that criteria – district 28 with a 55% black population and district 33 with a 54% Latino population (although district 32 comes close at 49% Latino).

If one is to stretch the definition to combine both black and Latino populations, then 9 districts could currently be considered majority minority (or 16 if we add Asians to that count). However, federal law indicates that these groups should be treated as separate “communities of interest” to be taken into consideration when drawing up the new map.

Furthermore, while recent judicial decisions suggest that New Jersey cannot dilute the two current majority minority districts, it is not required to create more minority majority districts if – or simply because – the possibility exists to do so.

So the federal guidelines are: New Jersey’s districts must be contiguous; must be roughly within 12,000 or so total residents of the 219,797 ideal district size; and must maintain the two current majority minority districts.

There is one other wrinkle which the commission and those who wish to influence the commission must consider. That is the New Jersey state Constitutional provision to preserve municipal (and county!) boundaries. Basically, this means that Newark and Jersey City may each be divided into two districts because their populations are larger than 219,797. However, recent federal rulings indicate that the map-makers would be unlikely to get away with the current three-way split this time around. The state Constitution also directs that counties should be divided no more than necessary to achieve equal districts. That is, unless further divisions are necessary to comply with the federal directives on district size and contiguity.

These legal requirements may leave the commission with little leeway in deciding how the new district lines may be drawn. And this will have an impact on how much the Latino population can be moved from district to district.

I started by indicating that many of the proposals put forth at the recent hearings would not pass legal muster and that even those that do may not increase Latino representation in the legislature.

This column was the wind-up. In my next column, I’ll throw the pitch and break down some of the possible – and impossible – configurations and their implications for Latino representation in the legislature.