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'Not enough': Critics say proposed Pa. districts limit Latino representation

While Latinos are the state's third-largest ethnic or racial group, some predominantly Hispanic cities are being divided into two or more districts, drawing objections.
A voter dropping off an early ballot
A voter arrives to drop off a ballot during early voting in Allentown, Pa., on Oct. 29, 2020.Getty Images file

Community members and local organizations in Pennsylvania are sounding the alarm over concerns that new legislative district maps could dilute the potential voting and political power of the state's growing Latino population.

Nearly 330,000 Latinos have moved to Pennsylvania over the past decade. Over 1 million Latinos now live in the state, according to the 2020 census, making them the third-largest racial or ethnic group.

But preliminary maps the Legislative Reapportionment Commission approved last month show that predominantly Latino cities have been divided into further districts, which could limit opportunities to elect more Latinos to the Legislature, critics say.

Proposed Senate maps would do little to "expand minority representation," particularly in the Lehigh Valley region, according to an analysis from Fair Districts PA, a nonpartisan project of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

The largest city in the region, Allentown, is the third most Hispanic city in Pennsylvania, with a population that is 54 percent Latino. But lawmakers plan to split it into two Senate districts, even though it's currently in just one.

The Hispanic population of Bethlehem, in the same region, has increased by 21 percent over the last decade, to about 22,000 — meaning Latinos now make up about a third of the city’s population. Legislators also want to split it into two Senate districts, even though it’s currently in just one.

The changes “would make it harder, not easier, to elect a Latino senator in that region,” the Fair Districts PA analysis concluded.

There are no Latino state senators, even though 8.1 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic. Latinos would have to win at least four Senate seats to ensure proportional representation.

"While there is not total consensus about whether or not to divide Bethlehem along county lines," because half of the city is in Lehigh County and the other half is in Northampton County, "there is very strong consensus that Allentown should not be divided to create a safe seat for one senator," Carol Kuniholm, the chair of Fair Districts PA, said last week at the first public hearing about the legislative redistricting process this year.

‘Representation is crucial’

Victor Martinez, a Spanish-language radio host who owns several stations across the state, has attended public hearings and expressed concerns over the redistricting process.

In last week’s hearing, Martinez doubled down on his worries over plans to further split House districts in his town, resulting in a decrease in the percentage of Latinos in each district.

Allentown is divided into two House districts, one of which is at least 60 percent Hispanic. Proposed House maps would divide it into three House districts that would have Latino populations of less than 55 percent.

"For me, for my community, the importance of representation is crucial," said Martinez, a resident of Allentown.

He pointed out that Pennsylvania has only four Latino state House representatives.

“That’s not enough," he said. For Latinos to have proportional representation in the state House, they would have to win at least 22 seats.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say that these maps bring that option and that opportunity,” he said.

Martinez expressed similar concerns about Reading, which is Pennsylvania’s most Hispanic city, with a 69 percent Latino population. He said a House district in Reading that is being represented by a Latino lost 13 percent of its Hispanic population, according to preliminary maps.

“I believe this puts at risk a Latino representative losing an election,” Martinez said.

Pennsylvania Voice, a nonpartisan coalition of over 45 local groups that has been researching polarized voting patterns in the Allentown area, voiced “serious concerns about the bifurcation of Allentown in the proposed State Senate maps” in last week’s public hearings.

Preliminary maps show that the west side of the city of Allentown would share a Senate district with parts of rural Lehigh and Berks counties. Salewa Ogunmefun, Pennsylvania Voice’s executive director, said that “dilutes the voting power of these residents.”

“We encourage this commission to replicate the trend of previous commissions by keeping the city of Allentown, and the ability of the growing Latinx and significant Black populations living there to elect candidates of their choice, whole,” Ogunmefun told the reapportionment commission last week.

Mark Nordenberg, the chair of the commission, has said the new maps have been drawn with eight “minority opportunity” districts that are particularly attractive because no incumbents live in them. Seven are in the House and one is in the Senate, he said.

Michael Li, a senior counsel and redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said: “But drawing fair maps can be particularly challenging as communities of color increasingly move to the suburbs. You have to ensure fair representation in a world where people aren’t segregated into district-sized units.”

Redistricting struggles across the country have shined a light on the many ways “our politics have to work for a multiracial America,” Li said, adding that laws being proposed in Congress, such as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, are fueling debate about what that looks like.

The approval of the preliminary maps in Pennsylvania triggered a 30-day public comment period that is set to end Tuesday, opening a door for changes before the maps are expected to be fully finalized by the end of January.

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