Tag Archives: representation

Court blocks Wisconsin redistrict plan, orders new maps

A three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on Jan. 27 permanently blocked the state’s redistricting plan, which unconstitutionally denies voters the ability to elect lawmakers.

“Yet again, the federal courts have ruled clearly: Wisconsin’s district maps are an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, they violate the rights of millions of Wisconsin citizens, and it’s time to move ahead and draw new maps,” said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which helped organize the lawsuit. “This is a victory for democracy and we look forward to a process to draw these maps that engage the community and invite public participation.”

This ruling by the court ensures that new district maps will be in place for the next state legislative elections, according to a news release.

The case is Whitford v. Gill

And the state is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lead plaintiff is Bill Whitford, who said, “Now, we will be keeping a watchful eye on the state Legislature as they draw the new maps and I ask them,  for the sake of our democracy, to put partisan politics aside and the interests of all voters first.”

Whitford and 11 Democrats are plaintiffs in the case being handled by the Campaign Legal Center and co-counsel Douglas M. Poland of Rathje & Woodward, LLC, Peter G. Earle, Michele L. Odorizzi of Mayer Brown and Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos of University of Chicago Law School.

Gerry Heber, director of voting rights and redistricting for CLC, stated, “This is truly another monumental victory for the plaintiffs in this case and for all Wisconsin Voters. Today, the court made a clear statement that holding yet another unconstitutional election under Act 43 would cause significant harm to the voters.”

Heber said the Legislature has continuously “demonstrated a disregard for the rights of the voters and an inability to craft a fair, legal redistricting plan” but a new plan would put voters, not partisan politics, first.

Poland said the court gave the state a Nov. 1 deadline for new maps.

He said, “The Legislature has plenty of time to hold hearings with broad participation from Wisconsin citizen. There is no excuse for limiting participation by all interested parties to draw a fair map in an open and transparent process. The time for cloaking the process in secrecy has ended. The plaintiffs, their lawyers, and all of Wisconsin, are watching.”

 

For the record …

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison: “The cornerstone of democracy is that the people should get to pick their legislators, not that legislators get to pick their voters. Today’s court ruling is a victory for Wisconsinites and democracy in our state, which has been under near-constant attack for the last six years. Voting should be fair, easy, and accessible, and today’s ruling only reinforces what Democrats have been saying for years.”

Kennedy vote seems key to Supreme Court redistricting cases

Justice Anthony Kennedy appears to hold the decisive vote in two Supreme Court cases involving challenges from African-American voters to electoral districts in North Carolina and Virginia.

The court’s liberal and conservative justices seemed otherwise divided after arguments this week about whether race played too large a role in creation of congressional districts in North Carolina and state legislative districts in Virginia.

The issue of race and redistricting one is a familiar one at the Supreme Court. States have to take race into account when drawing maps for legislative, congressional and a host of municipal political districts. At the same time, race can’t be the predominant factor, under a line of high court cases stretching back 20 years.

Kennedy said he had problems with a lower court’s reasoning in upholding 12 districts in Virginia, suggesting there could be a majority for throwing out that decision. He had less to say about the two North Carolina congressional districts, which were struck down by a lower court.

The arguments demonstrated the difficulty in distinguishing racial and partisan motivations, when African-Americans overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

The justices soon could be asked to decide whether the Constitution also prohibits electoral maps that are too partisan, in a case from Wisconsin.

Justices on both sides of the divide voiced a certain fatigue with the issue. Justice Samuel Alito suggested states are being held to an impossible standard that is “just an invitation for litigation in every one of these instances.”

Justice Stephen Breyer said he had hoped his majority opinion in a case from Alabama “would end these cases in this court, which it certainly doesn’t seem to have done.” Breyer said lawmakers could not take not a “mechanically numerical” approach to redistricting.

In Virginia, lawmakers in 2011 used the results of the 2010 census to create 12 districts in which African-Americans made up at least 55 percent of the population of eligible voters, saying that level was necessary to ensure they could elect their candidate of choice. Black voters who sued contended lawmakers packed the districts with black voters, making other districts whiter and more Republican. The effect was to dilute black voting strength, they said.

Arguing for the Virginia challengers, attorney Marc Elias said the lower court was wrong to uphold a “one size fits all” standard regardless of the different voting patterns and demographics across the 12 districts.

He drew support from Justice Elena Kagan. “It sort of defies belief you could pick a number and say that applies with respect to every majority-minority district,” Kagan said.

Paul Clement, representing Virginia, said 55 percent actually is a reasonable number for all 12 districts. “So it’s not like this number comes out of thin air,” Clement said.

Nine of the 12 districts had greater black populations under the plan in effect before the 2010 census, and two others were at least 53 percent black.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who appeared to favor the state, questioned whether it is so easy to determine the most important reason for drawing a district a particular way when there are several considerations about its geographic size and shape, as well as the interests that unite its residents. “It’s easy to imagine situations where you cannot say that one dominates over all the others.”

The North Carolina case seemed to present more of a puzzle to the court. The lower court struck down two majority-black congressional districts, finding they relied too heavily on race.

The state, also represented by Clement, conceded the use of race in one district, but only to maintain a black-majority district. In the other, Clement said, race played no role at all in the creation of one district. “This was an avowedly political draw,” he said, meaning that Republicans who controlled the redistricting process wanted to leave the district in Democratic hands, so that the surrounding districts would be safer for Republicans.

Clement also suggested that the challenges in both cases were motivated more by Democratic politics than concerns about race.

Kennedy’s votes in redistricting cases can be hard to predict. He joined Breyer’s opinion in the Alabama case last year. In 2013, Kennedy sided with more conservative justices to effectively block a key component of the landmark Voting Rights Act that led to the election of African-Americans across the South. Its provisions requiring states to create and preserve districts in which minority voting groups can elect their candidate of choice remain in effect.

In North Carolina, the federal court also struck down some state House and Senate districts, and last week, those judges ordered new districts drawn and special elections held next year.

North Carolina Republicans have used the current districts to achieve veto-proof majorities in both chambers. In addition, they hold 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats. By contrast, statewide contests suggest a narrower gap between the parties. Two Republicans won statewide elections last month, President-elect Donald Trump with just under 50 percent of the vote and Sen. Richard Burr with 51 percent. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday conceded defeat in his closely fought bid for another term.

Decisions in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 15-680, and McCrory v. Harris, 15-1262, are expected by early summer.

DIVIDED AMERICA: Minorities missing in many legislatures

As Virginia’s only Latino state lawmaker, Alfonso Lopez made it his first order of business to push for a law granting in-state college tuition to immigrants living since childhood in the U.S. without legal documents.

The bill died in committee.

So Lopez tried again the next year. And the year after that.

Now, in his fifth year in office, Lopez is gearing up for one more attempt in 2017.

“If we had a more diverse (legislature) and more Latinos in the House of Delegates,” he says, “I don’t think it would be as difficult.”

America’s government is a lot whiter than American itself and not just in Virginia.

While minorities have made some political gains in recent decades, they remain significantly underrepresented in Congress and nearly every state legislature though they comprise a growing share of the U.S. population, according to an analysis of demographic data by The Associated Press. The disparity in elected representation is especially large for Hispanics, even though they are now the nation’s largest ethnic minority.

A lack of political representation can carry real-life consequences, and not only on hot-button immigration issues. State spending for public schools, housing and social programs all can have big implications for minority communities. So can decisions on issues such as criminal justice reform, election laws or the printing of public documents in other languages besides English.

When the people elected don’t look, think, talk or act like the people they represent, it can deepen divisions that naturally exist in the U.S.

Campaigning door-to-door in the heavily Latino neighborhoods of south Omaha, Nebraska, first-time legislative candidate Tony Vargas has talked with numerous people afraid to participate in democracy. Some felt shunned or confused when they once attempted to vote. Others have misconceptions about the legal requirements to do so. Some simply believe their vote doesn’t matter.

“You can hear the fear in people’s voices, and you can hear that they feel like less of a member of society, less of an American,” says Vargas, whose parents came to the U.S. from Peru.

Though Hispanics now make up 10 percent of Nebraska’s population, there is not a single Latino lawmaker in its Legislature.

The Associated Press analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Congress and the National Conference of State Legislatures to determine the extent to which the nation’s thousands of lawmakers match the demographics of its hundreds of millions of residents. The result: Non-Hispanic whites make up a little over 60 percent of the U.S. population, but still hold more than 80 percent of all congressional and state legislative seats.

Among major minority groups:

  • Blacks are the least underrepresented but still face sizable gaps in some places. In Mississippi and Louisiana, about one-third of the population is black. Yet each state has a single black member of Congress and a disproportionately small number in their state legislatures.
  • More than half the states still have no lawmakers with Asian or Pacific Islander heritage, and just four states have any in Congress.
  • Hispanics comprise more than 17 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are fewer than 7 percent in Congress and fewer than 4 percent of state legislators. The gaps in representation exist even in California, New Mexico and Texas, with the largest Latino populations.

There are many reasons for the disparities.

The U.S. Hispanic population generally is younger and less likely to be eligible voters. And those who can vote often don’t. Voter turnout among Hispanics (as well as Asian Americans) dipped to just 27 percent in 2014, compared with 41 percent for blacks and 46 percent for whites, according to the Pew Research Center. Low voter involvement can make it harder to recruit minority candidates, and less likely for minority communities to be targeted by campaigns.

“It becomes sort of self-fulfilling _ they’re not likely voters, so you don’t talk to them, and because you don’t talk to them, they don’t become likely voters,” says political consultant Roger Salazar, whose clients include California’s legislative Latino caucus.

The power of incumbency also can work against minority representation. Decades of deeply ingrained name recognition have helped white lawmakers continue to get elected in some districts where population shifts have gradually made racial minorities the majority.

Another factor is the way legislative districts have been drawn. Racial gerrymandering can occur either when minority communities are divided among multiple districts to dilute their voting strength or when they are packed heavily into a single district to diminish the likelihood of minorities winning multiple seats.

In states that have elected a critical mass of minority legislators, they’ve claimed some policy successes.

In California, a new law expands the state’s Medi-Cal health care program for low-income residents to immigrant children, regardless of their legal status. The state budget includes $15 million for nonprofits to help immigrants gain U.S. citizenship or remain in the country. And a law that kicked in last year provided drivers’ licenses to more than 600,000 people living in the country illegally.

But minority legislators in numerous states told the AP that their priorities have been stymied partly due to a lack of others like them.

For 22 years, Delaware state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry has been the only black senator in a state where African-Americans comprise more than one-fifth of all residents. Henry says she has long sought to improve the educational opportunities for black children bused under a Wilmington desegregation plan to suburban schools. But recommendations from multiple studies have gone nowhere over the years.

Now, a new commission has recommended realigning Wilmington area school districts and revising the state funding formula to direct more money to schools with larger numbers of students who are low-income, learning English or at high risk of not completing school. Henry fears the plan will again be difficult to pass.

“If there were more black elected officials, we would have a better chance to get something done,” she says.

 

 

Supreme Court rejects conservative challenge on redistricting

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the method all states use to draw their legislative districts, rejecting a conservative challenge on redistricting that could have given more clout to white, rural voters.

The eight justices rebuffed a case spearheaded by a conservative legal activist brought against the state of Texas over the manner in which it carved out voting districts for its state Senate, based on a count of every resident rather than just eligible voters.

They ruled that Texas, in drawing the districts, did not violate the long-established legal principle of “one person, one vote” endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s during the era of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Writing for the court, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that elected legislators “serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.” Ginsburg said non-voters, including children, have “an important stake in many policy debates,” including education, and sometimes need help navigating government bureaucracy.

A victory for the conservative challengers in the case Evenwel v. Abbott could have shifted influence in U.S. state legislative races away from urban areas that tend to be racially diverse and favor Democrats to rural ones predominantly with white voters who often back Republicans.

The policy of counting all residents and not just those who are eligible voters boosts the electoral influence of locales, typically urban and heavily Hispanic, with significant populations of people ineligible to vote. People ineligible to vote include legal and illegal immigrants as well as children and certain convicted criminals.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, described the ruling as a “clear and important victory” that “protects the right of all people across the U.S. to be represented by their officials and be counted when electoral maps are drawn.”

Two of the court’s conservatives, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, concurred only in the judgment and did not sign on to Ginsburg’s opinion. The court is one justice short following the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, but the unanimous vote suggested his presence would not have substantially affected the outcome.

At issue in the case was whether equality of legislative representation necessitates equal numbers of all residents in voting districts regardless of whether they are eligible to vote or equal numbers of eligible voters.

Adopting a new approach “would upset a well-functioning approach to districting that all 50 states and countless local jurisdictions have followed for decades, even centuries,” Ginsburg wrote. The ruling does not foreclose states trying different approaches in future.

LEGAL ACTIVIST

Two Texas voters, Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger, were recruited by conservative legal activist Edward Blum to file the lawsuit. Evenwel was a member of the Texas Republican Party’s executive committee and Pfenninger worked as a security guard. Both lived in rural voting districts.

“We are disappointed that the justices were unwilling to re-establish the original principle of one-person, one-vote for the citizens of Texas and elsewhere,” Blum said in a statement.

The challengers said the state Senate redistricting map signed into law by a Republican governor in 2013 failed to equally distribute voters, improperly expanding the voting power of urban areas. They asserted that the state’s system violated the guarantee of equal protection under the law under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Caroline Fredrickson, president of the liberal American Constitution Society, said the court “wisely rejected an effort to dilute the political representation of minorities and children.”

She added that it was important for the court to endorse voting rights at a time when Republican states have enacted new restrictions, including identification requirements, that Democrats say disproportionately affect minorities.

The dispute did not involve U.S. congressional districts. The Constitution requires seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to be distributed based on a state’s total population, not just eligible voters.

The Obama administration supported the Texas plan.

Blum’s group, the Project on Fair Representation, also orchestrated a lawsuit from Shelby County, Alabama that in 2013 led the high court to invalidate a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act mandating federal approval for election law changes in states with histories of racial discrimination.

It also backed another important case heard by the Supreme Court in December, a white woman’s challenge to a University of Texas admissions policy that considers an applicants’ race among other factors in an effort to enroll more minority students. The court has not yet ruled in that case.