Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Democratic legislative map may face legal challenges

By Jamey Dunn

A legislative map proposed by Illinois Democrats would violate the rights of Hispanic voters, according to one Latino legal organization.

A representative of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) said the map Democrats have proposed for the Illinois House doesn’t do enough — according to federal law — to ensure that the growing number of Latino voters in the state will have enough political voice. “We believe that [House Bill 3760] does not create a sufficient number of districts for Latino electoral opportunities to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF. A House committee approved the bill today along partisan lines. A separate but similar proposal by Senate Democrats was held in committee. Chicago Sen. Kwame Raoul, sponsor of his chamber’s Democratic map, said he wants to give Republicans and other interested groups time to review the plan and proposes changes.

Perales said that the biggest problem with the proposed map in the House can be found on the south side of Chicago, where she says it both splinters some Latino populations into several districts and packs others together “in a way that is diluted and denies Latinos an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.”

She said the map proposal creates three districts on the south side of the city with Latinos making up 65 percent or more of the voting age population, while MALDEF has identified five potential Latino majority districts in the area. Perales cited case law that she says determines that creating a 60 percent  to 65 percent Hispanic district is one way to ensure that districts in the Chicago area would give Hispanics a chance to elect the candidates of their choice. She said her organization believes that Latino majority districts require more than 50 percent of the population to be Latino for several reasons, including lower voter registration than some other groups and undocumented members of the population who are counted in the census but cannot vote.

Perales said the group plans to release its own map of the Chicago area, the second it has put forth. “We feel that it’s important to provide alternatives in order to demonstrate that there’s more than one way of complying with the Voting Rights Act. … There’s no magic that a particular line be in one place or the other. The goal here is to create Latino majority districts that offer the opportunity to elect,” Perales told the committee.

When asked whether MALDEF would sue if the current map is the one that becomes law, she said, “We don’t announce litigation.” However Perales did say that “MALDEF has been very engaged in redistricting litigation in Illinois and in other states.” She said that by waiting until the closing days of the spring legislative session, lawmakers make it more difficult to correct any potential legal problems with the map that outside groups might bring to light. “It is a very legitimate concern when redistricting plans are rolled out, and then hearings are scheduled without sufficient time to analyze the plan fully. We have done what analysis we can.”

When asked whether she thinks House members will incorporate suggestions from MALDEF, as well as other groups representing minority communities, on how to ensure the map complies with the federal Voting Rights Act, she said she cannot predict what lawmakers will decide in the end. “They have their own legal counsel; I’m quite sure they know what they need to do.”

During the hearing, Republicans joined the chorus of witnesses who said that Democrats were moving the process along too quickly and not supplying the public with enough information.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of the House map, said that the Democrats' map fulfills all the proper legal requirements. “It’s all a balance. It’s all trying to take into account a variety of factors. … I think we’ve done a very good job of trying to meet the basic principles of redistricting,” Currie said.

"We don’t have anything to show that to us, that those factors have been balanced,” said Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican and the minority spokesman on the House Redistricting Committee. “This is an action that will have an impact for the next decade on the state of Illinois.”

Currie encouraged Republicans to present their own map. As of yet, the minority party has presented no concrete plan to draw the legislative lines. “I don’t anticipate that we’re necessarily going to vote tomorrow. I’m keeping my powder dry and my options open.”

Republicans tried to pin witnesses down on legal issue,s such as what population thresholds would be needed to ensure that minorities have influence in a given district. Allan Lichtman, a history professor for Washington, D.C-based American University who advised Democrats on their current proposal as well as the process in 2001, said no answers can be applied across the board. He said that figuring out whether a district has been drawn to give a minority population a voice involves many factors, including the voting history of the district and minority group as well as the location of the district.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said Republicans are trying to build a case to challenge in court whatever map Democrats ultimately approve. “There’s not much political strategy because the Democrats have the votes and the governor’s chair. It’s all about building yourself a record in terms of court challenges. … If the Republicans are going to get to an alternative map, it would probably have to be through some kind of federal court challenge.”

Redfield said Democrats' actions in the coming week will likely determine whether minority groups eventually sue  over the final map. “The question is whether [MALDEF’s statement on the proposed map] is a negotiation strategy, and there’s some kind of accommodation, or whether or not they’re at an impasse.”

He added, “The assumption is we’re going to be in the courts. It’s just a question of who the plaintiffs will be.”

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