Bill Boyarsky
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Race and county redistricting

Do Latinos tend to vote only for Latinos? Do non-Latinos generally vote against Hispanic political candidates? Those racially charged questions are behind the current struggle over drawing new districts for Los Angeles County’s five supervisors.

The supervisors are required to change the boundaries of their districts every 10 years to take into account population changes. The federal Voting Rights Act requires the district lines to be drawn so they do not deny minorities a chance of winning elections. Those protected by the act include African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

In 1991, a federal court ruled that the Los Angeles County supervisors denied Latinos a chance to be elected to the board. The court found that supervisors, all white, purposefully gerrymandered districts so that Latinos were a minority in each of them, a Voting Rights Act violation. As a result, district lines were redrawn, a constituency with a Latino majority was created, and Gloria Molina was elected to the board of supervisors.

Over the years, the Latino population has increased. Latinos now constitute 48 percent of the county’s 9.8 million residents, with whites 28 percent, Asian Americans 14 percent and African Americans 8 percent. With the growth of that population, Latino groups, supported by Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, who is African American, are pressing for the creation of a second supervisorial district where more than 50 percent of the population would be Latinos eligible to vote.

Creation of such a district would come at the expense of veteran Supervisor Don Knabe, who is white. It would do this by removing from his district largely white areas along the coast where he has strong support and give him more Latinos.

Advocates for a second Latino majority district have produced studies of many elections in which whites vote for whites and Latinos for Latinos. “The data and election results make clear that, when given a chance in a primary or non-partisan election, non-Latinos tend to vote against Latino candidates in all reaches of Los Angeles County, while Latinos vote strongly in favor,” University of Washington Professor Matt A. Barreto said in a study submitted to the county.

Those on the other side note the election of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Lee Baca, Latinos. “Frankly, the notion that non-minorities won’t vote for a minority candidate in L.A. County is antiquated. Los Angeles in 2011 is not the same as the Los Angeles of forty, thirty or even twenty years ago. Our county is politically and socially far more mature and broad-minded.” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Are voters color blind? Or do the supervisors, knowing Latinos vote for Latinos, want to continue splitting up the Hispanic vote to protect Knabe and others who might face a Latino challenge?

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