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Latinos' next census task: Get money and power through redistricting

Latino groups are trying to excite Latinos about redistricting amid a census that some say undercounted many of their communities.
Two young children hold signs through the car window that make reference to the 2020 U.S. Census, at an outreach event in Dallas on 25, 2020.
Two children make their views known about the 2020 census, at an outreach event in Dallas last year.Tony Gutierrez / AP file

Here and there around the country, Latino advocacy groups have been instructing people on money and political power — and how to get it.

The groups are trying to help growing communities of Latinos understand the next step following the 2020 census results: having a say in how their neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, regions and states will be thrown together or split apart in the highly partisan redistricting process. 

The task is not an easy one. Redistricting is wonky and chock-full of behind-closed-doors maneuvering. But it has an oversize impact on people's lives, to the tune of billions of dollars as well as government decision-making power from Congress to school boards to local commissions and councils.

The latest set of numbers from the 2020 census are scheduled for release Thursday. They will include demographic data and should show Latinos' significant impact on the nation's population growth.

The census figures are the official start of the process of subdividing state populations into legislative districts. Many states have already started drawing proposed maps and holding community hearings ahead of drawing new districts that will be in place for a decade. 

In North Carolina, redistricting is one of the classes in the People Power school organized by Poder NC Action, a civic education “school” on how power operates, said Irene Godínez, founder and director of Poder. 

The group is targeting high school and college age Latinos and generally has about 30 participants in classes that meet a couple hours a week, Godínez said. Redistricting was a topic of one of the classes.

“We know our people were undercounted, so what we will get will be flawed because of that undercount,” she said. “Obviously we will try to make the best of it.”

The data released Thursday will give official numbers for the past decade. Based on the estimates, North Carolina’s Hispanic population has grown faster than its overall population, and about a quarter of the Hispanic increase is in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

The Latino population grew from about 75,000 in 1990 to 800,000 in 2010 and an estimated 226,000 in the past decade, according to Carolina Demography.

North Carolina gained a congressional seat, for a total of 14, because it gained about 1 million people during the last decade. The Legislature draws its congressional and legislative districts.

New districts can be drawn where new populations have emerged, but lines for existing districts have to be adjusted to equal out population. Doing so can change the demographic, economic and political preferences of the district.

That's where the political wrangling sets in, as parties and groups try to draw lines that benefit their incumbents and future candidates.

Guarding against 'closed door' redistricting

Because of the census delays resulting from the pandemic and Trump administration interference, states are facing fast-approaching deadlines to draw political maps.

That's added up to a compressed schedule in many states that could leave many Latinos who are just now tuning in to the process without much time to have their say on future political districts.

Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino group that conducted a 2020 campaign to get more Latinos to fill out the census, is launching its national campaign on redistricting next week.

For now it has been focused on Harris County, Texas, where Houston is, to influence the drawing of county commission districts.

Angelica Razo, Texas director of Mi Familia Vota, said the group is working with other communities to ensure that communities of color aren’t fighting each other for equal representation.

“The history of redistricting in Texas is one that happens largely behind closed doors. Given that we’re in a pandemic, there is so much happening right now, it’s easy to fall back on that,” Razo said. “The voices of communities of color … have been not just left out but actually stepped on."

Texas gained two congressional seats and Latinos have been responsible for about 53 percent of the state’s growth, according to the Texas Demographic Center. Hispanics are on track to outnumber whites in the state by the end of the year or early next year, the state's demographer, Lloyd Potter, has said. 

In Arizona, voters took redistricting away from legislators and put the task in the hands of a five-member appointed commission made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent. 

Working with other organizations, the Latino advocacy group Living United for Change in Arizona, or Lucha, has been using social media and phone-banking to educate people on redistricting and preparing people to give testimony at hearings the independent commission has been holding.

Its work has been complicated as redistricting public hearings have been canceled or their locations changed at the last minute, said Amanda Lugo, democracy director for Lucha and Arizona Center for Empowerment.

In addition, hearing agendas and a community survey to assist in drawing districts haven’t been available in Spanish. Public outreach to parts of the Latino community is lacking, Lugo said.

“There’s no press in Spanish-language media outlets and the hearings are only announced in media alerts and on the [independent commission's] website, so there didn’t seem to be attempts to increase public engagement,” she said.

Arizona did not gain any congressional seats, a surprise to many who anticipated it would get one more because of its growing population. About 1.9 million people in Arizona in 2010 were Latino; the population is estimated to have increased to 2.3 million now.

In California, which lost a seat for the first time in its history, the Latino Community Foundation is trying to rally Latino philanthropists to give their input on their communities to the commission, said Christian Arana, vice president of policy.

The foundation has been harnessing the wealth of everyday Latinos to invest back in Hispanic communities for about six years. But it also tries to get its donors involved in "major civic moments," such as elections and redistricting, he said.

"We're trying to take donating bucks to another level to make it more significant and meaningful," Arana said.

California uses a citizens redistricting commission to draw its district lines. Although the state's population growth stalled over the last decade, the Latino population grew by about 1.5 million, Pew Research Center estimated.

In Colorado, town halls, emails, social media and a radio show are being used to alert Latinos to ongoing redistricting. It uses independent legislative and congressional redistricting commissions.

Colorado gained a seat, and Pew estimated it's added 212,000 more Latinos to its population.

"It's not like people are lining up" for redistricting town halls, said Dusti Gurule, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or Color. "But the level of saturation is important. I think the commissioners themselves are hearing from the Latino community and listening."

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