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The Diminishing Returns of the Politics of the Barrio : Redistricting: Electoral reform will boost Latino power, but demographics demand candidates with crossover appeal.

September 30, 1990|David R. Ayon | David Ayon teaches political science at Occidental College.

The voting-rights suit against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, now on appeal, is testament to the maturity of the Latino electoral-reform movement in California. Following the examples of blacks in the South and Mexican-Americans in Texas and New Mexico, it aims to use electoral reform to increase Latino political representation and empower the barrio. But social and demographic realities will not allow such reform alone to accomplish for California's Latinos what it has for minorities elsewhere. Indeed, for Latinos to realize their full political potential in California, strategies that move beyond the barrio will have to be devised.

Where at-large or mixed electoral systems prevail, the movement, lead by such groups as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, seeks to establish single-member district--or "ward"--elections (as in Watsonville two years ago). Where a ward system already exists, it seeks district lines that ensure maximum political effectiveness for every Latino vote--as in L.A. County.

Redistricting and ward elections will lead to Latino representation on city councils and school boards. And such gains will constitute real political breakthroughs for the Latino communities involved. But many in the movement expect electoral reform to produce much more than local, incremental political gains. They see barrio empowerment as the "infrastructure" of Latino political power as a whole.

True, electoral reform will probably set up the framework for barrio political mobilization and representation. But these efforts are likely to yield limited results in California. For example, in the center ring of Latino politics in the state--Los Angeles County--redistricting can create few significant political offices for Latinos.

The most exhaustive study to date, sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, indicates that ward elections, on the whole, do not diminish Latino underrepresentation on city councils. Two major factors explain the diminishing power of electoral reform to increase the number of Latino officeholders: low levels of voter eligibility due to lack of citizenship, and the residential dispersal of Latinos who are U.S. citizens.

Historically, Mexican immigrants have acquired U.S. citizenship at an abysmally low rate--lowest of all national-origin groups. According to a Census Bureau survey following the November, 1988, elections, among Latinos of voting age, non-citizens outnumbered citizens in the Pacific Division states, the first time since the citizenship question has been asked. The massive immigration of the 1970s and 1980s has produced a staggering political challenge for Latino organizations and activists--a challenge that is long from being taken up on a scale commensurate with its political potential.

The problem of voter eligibility among Latinos, however, is not so much ignored as underemphasized. The National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has made naturalization its top priority; the Southwest Project promotes citizenship in the many voter registration drives it conducts. But we have yet to see the cause of citizenship promoted with the same sort of intense, coordinated and high-profile campaign--superbly directed by Arturo Vargas of MALDEF--undertaken to encourage Latino participation in the census.

The barrio-based empowerment strategy assumes that Latinos are as residentially segregated as blacks. In fact, Latino citizens tend to be "moderately" segregated from Anglos or non-Latino whites. Blacks, in contrast, are typically "hypersegregated" from Anglos. The most residentially concentrated Latinos in Southern California are predominantly non-citizens.

A University of Chicago analysis of census data collected in the 60 largest metropolitan areas in the country found that black indexes of residential segregation are, on average, 60% higher than those for Latinos. These indexes indicate what fraction of a group would have to move to be evenly distributed across a city or county's census tracts. In the case of Los Angeles County in 1980, which showed the highest levels of residential segregation in California, more than 80% of blacks but 57% of Latinos would have to change addresses to match Anglo distribution.

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