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Giving redistricting a little respect

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors needs to set aside politics and to the right thing — draw new boundaries that reflect the population.

September 27, 2011

Every 10 years, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is charged with redrawing the electoral district lines to reflect the population shifts in the county detected in the latest census.

In theory, that's a straightforward task driven by demographic facts and figures. In reality, however, the process is complicated by a variety of factors, including the self-interest of incumbents who are eager to keep their seats, as well as the racial politics of a highly diverse and rapidly changing county, and the difficulty of drawing a map that will allow five elected officials to govern nearly 10 million people responsively and effectively.

Currently, only one of the five supervisorial districts has a voting population that is more than 50% Latino — and, perhaps as a result, only one of the five supervisors is Latino — even though Latinos account for 34% of the county's voting-age citizens (and nearly half of its total population).

This year, the supervisors are split over whether the rapid growth of the Latino community during the last decade requires them to create a second Latino-majority district. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas both believe it does and have proposed maps that create one. Supervisor Don Knabe has proposed a map that would essentially retain the current districts.

On Tuesday, the supervisors will attempt to break the political deadlock. It's unclear whether they can secure the four-vote supermajority needed to adopt any of the proposed maps or, if they do manage to cut a deal, whether any agreement would keep them from having to go to court to defend their plan. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has already vowed to sue if the county fails to create a second Latino-majority district, which it says is required under the federal Voting Rights Act. That law is intended to ensure that protected racial and language minority groups such as Latinos and African Americans aren't disenfranchised.

Ultimately, the county's new supervisorial boundaries will most likely be determined by a federal judge, just as they were in 1990. The court will have to decide whether "racially polarized" voting exists in the county and whether Latinos' voting strength has been illegally diluted, preventing them from electing candidates of their choosing. If the court agrees with MALDEF, Molina and Ridley-Thomas that racially polarized voting and other problems exist, then the Voting Rights Act would require that a second Latino seat be created that is both compact and contiguous. To determine that, the court must conduct a complicated calculation that could require scrutiny of past elections, and if the court reaches that conclusion, then residents of Los Angeles would do well to support the decision.

If the court finds that Latinos' vote has not been diluted, then the complexion of the board would most likely remain the same in the short term. But that won't stop change for long. The Latino population of the county is continuing to grow, and it seems inevitable that a second Latino district will come into being in the not-too-distant future. And more such districts may follow. Fighting those changes seems both fruitless and morally unjustifiable.

We'd like to see the board carry out the requirements of redistricting in the best interests of the county and its voters, with a minimum of politics. The five supervisors say the new maps aren't about preserving power, yet there are plenty of elements of the current battle that smack of a business-as-usual political squabble. Knabe's plan would essentially leave his district and that of Michael D. Antonovich virtually untouched, which would help them both next year when they are up for reelection. Both Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky are termed out in 2014. However, Yaroslavsky is considering a run for mayor. His loyalty to his existing district could help him with his base if he does throw his hat into the ring. Environmentalists and donors with deep pockets could repay him. It is this kind of politicking over the district lines that led California voters to take state and congressional redistricting out of the hands of elected officials and give it over to a citizens commission.

Most county residents are probably not even aware that the redistricting process is underway; most probably don't even know who their supervisor is. That's a shame, because the Board of Supervisors is an immensely important political body. Its five members control the purse strings for such things as funding for hospitals and clinics, the county Sheriff's Department and its jails, and roads and other services.

What the county's residents need and deserve is a redistricting process that respects the law, that is not motivated by a desire to reelect incumbents and that abides by the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. The new boundaries, whether drawn by the supervisors or by a three-member appeals panel or, most likely, by the courts, should be compact and contiguous. The lines should encourage minority voting, not dilute it. Communities of interest of all sorts ought to be kept together where possible, but not for political reasons.

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