Fair Representation for Latinos Ensures Civil Rights for All

On Tuesday, September 27, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors votes to redraw county lines, we will show California and the nation whether we have learned from past mistakes or are determined to repeat them. At issue is whether the Supervisors will make voting-age Latinos the majority in two of the county's five districts, not just one. We firmly believe the law calls for two such districts.

The Voting Rights Act is unambiguous. It requires our democracy to adjust when clearly defined voting patterns and substantial numbers create communities that are unable to receive adequate representation due to racially polarized voting. Those requirements are not Latino requirements; they are safeguards that ensure equality for all Americans. It's called democracy.

Latinos make up almost half of the county's residents, and the Latino population has grown 140 percent since the last redistricting map was drawn in 1990. That growth is one reason that the 1990 map is no longer relevant, but it is not the only one. The data from both primaries and general elections proves conclusively that racially polarized voting is significant. Overwhelmingly, when Latinos demonstrate a strong preference for a candidate, the non-Latino population defeats that candidate. Federal law requires the Board to acknowledge those voting patterns when redrawing County lines, along with socioeconomic data of which race and ethnicity are only a part.

Up for consideration Tuesday are three proposed maps, and the board must reach a two-thirds consensus or four-member vote to adopt one. The first option on the table is problematic: it merely tinkers around the margins of the existing boundary architecture. Two other options, one sponsored by myself and another by Supervisor Gloria Molina, would each create a second Latino-majority district: The map I sponsored, SD2, crafted by a coalition of African American community organizations and churches, would make the Fourth District such a district, and the one sponsored by Supervisor Molina, T1, would create such a district in the Third, that stretches from the eastern San Fernando Valley, through downtown to East L.A.

If the board cannot agree on a particular map, the county will enter the uncharted waters of having the issue decided by a majority of the three County-wide elected officials: Controller John Noguez, District Attorney Steve Cooley and Sheriff Lee Baca.

Foes of our maps assert that they would upset the status quo. This is true: our maps would do just that. The Voting Right Act, however, requires us to look beyond the comforting rhythms and routines of government to which we have become accustomed.

It is not a coincidence that one of the first calls for a second Latino majority district in Los Angeles County came from a coalition of African-American community groups and churches. Why? Because embracing this change is fundamental to ideals embedded in our founding documents, ideals championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and that are broadly embraced by Americans. The struggle for equality is not confined to one group and is not intended to promote or protect privilege.

Some assert that majority-minority districts are unnecessary nowadays as whites are beginning to vote for minority candidates. The reverse, however, also is true: minority voters have an even longer history of working with and voting for white candidates, so at issue is not the color of a candidate's skin, but whether that candidate will be responsive to the issues of a community. There is no reason white candidates can't win in reconfigured districts -- if their ideas, philosophy about the role of government, style of governance and ideology -- not their skin color -- align with those of the constituents.

The example of Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who served the Second District for 40 years, amply illustrates this point: Hahn, who was white, enjoyed an ardent following in the Second District and in election after election was the candidate of choice for African Americans.

Twenty years ago, the Board of Supervisors refused to heed the call for fairness and drew county lines that neutralized Latino voting power. A court remedied the board's intentional dilution of Latino voting strength and redrew the map. In the process, the court also invalidated an election; ordered a special election and awarded the plaintiffs legal fees equal to the $6 million the Board spent to defend what was indefensible.

We can go down that same road again Tuesday and repeat history. Or, we make it by voluntarily adhering to the Voting Rights Act, following the numbers and following the law.

Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas are both members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.