Pennsylvania Latinos strive to turn huge population gains into political muscles, but still face obstaclesSpotlight PA
This article is part of a year-long reporting project focusing on redistribution and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible thanks to the support of PA projector members and Vote, a project focused on the integrity of elections and access to the vote.
LEHIGH VALLEY – Over the past five years, Victor Martinez has noticed that more and more businesses run by Hispanics show up on the route he drives to work.
Martinez owns La Mega, a Spanish radio station located just outside of downtown Allentown. On his journey from his home in Macungie, he saw new restaurants, barber shops and bodegas. A restaurant located five minutes from its station, La Bicicleta, opened its doors just two years ago and its Venezuelan arepas are now one of its pillars.
The business boom reflects the rapid growth of Pennsylvania’s Latin American population, which has overtaken 1 million people according to the last census – an increase of 43% compared to ten years ago. The problem, Martinez said, is that population growth has yet to translate into increased power and influence at all levels of government, especially the state legislature.
“As soon as the census came out, leaders of the Hispanic community in Allentown and Reading started calling and talking to each other on [how] we need to make sure we are involved in every district conversation, ”Martinez said. “Now we have it on paper. Now we can go and express to governments that our community needs and deserves to be represented. “
To that end, Martinez has become one of Latino’s most vocal advocates during this year’s redistribution process – a legally required redistribution of the state’s legislative districts based on decennial census data. Much more than a bureaucratic exercise, redistribution can have huge implications for which groups have the most electoral influence in a given area, and which party – Democrats or Republicans – has the advantage on election day.
There are over 3 million people of color living in Pennsylvania, and these communities have fueled the state’s population growth. Their gains more than offset the continued contraction of the white population, which has fallen by half a million over the past decade.
In total, a quarter of state residents now identify as non-white. Yet only 10% of the 253 General Assembly members identify as people of color. In 2015, this figure was 9%.
That’s why defenders like Martinez are getting more and more involved. They see redistribution as an opportunity for political maps and voting power to more fairly represent the growth of certain communities.
Martinez said he hoped new lines could create at least two more legislative constituencies that could elect a Latino representative.
“There are none in the Senate,” he said, “and there are only four Latinos in the House of Representatives.”
For Martinez and others of color, fair representation is proven by a legislature that reflects the demographics of the state. But demographic majorities, even in areas with minority enclaves, can be difficult to represent on maps due to dispersed communities or geographic barriers such as rivers or highways.
The law can also create obstacles.
Neither the Pennsylvania Constitution nor the United States Constitution explicitly requires legislative districts to demographically represent their constituents. The state constitution lists only three requirements: compactness, contiguity and the minimization of divisions between municipalities.
Federal regulations regarding redistribution are defined by the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Citing the equal protection clause, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to use race as the predominant factor when drawing district lines.
Separately, the law on voting rights prohibits the dilution of the votes of minority communities, that is to say consolidate or disperse a minority community with the effect of reducing its voting power. But proving dilution is a tall order under the law.
These protections can complicate efforts to create new neighborhoods and challenge existing neighborhoods.
“Unfortunately, the only tool in the federal toolkit we have is the voting rights law to protect marginalized communities,” said Fulvia Vargas-De León, lawyer for the legal defense group LatinoJustice. “Pennsylvania, like many other states, has no clear guidelines, other than adjacency and compactness, in terms of how they draw districts.”
To resolve this difficulty, some cartographers – such as the Legislative Redistribution Commission, a panel of key House and Senate leaders, and an independent president responsible for maps of the General Assembly – have turned to “communities of interest.” As an alternative.
These are geographic areas where people have common political goals. But the commission’s commitment to this principle is not legally binding, and because the description of these communities requires public input and feedback, advocates fear that there will not be enough participation at all. process to produce fully representative maps.
For Will Gonzalez – executive director of Ceiba, a coalition of Latin American organizations in Philadelphia – bringing these communities of interest to the attention of lawmakers is essential. For example, he said, the concentration of Latino and Latino institutions in Northeast Philadelphia, from nonprofits and churches to schools and businesses, must be maintained despite the fact that they do not constitute a majority.
“In places that do not reach this level of 50% plus one, [we] must make sure they are not cut and divided, ”Gonzalez said. “We want to be able to have communities of interest, who share to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that may present themselves to their communities through unified representation in their legislature.
“That’s why being part of the process early on is really, really important. “
‘Divided in so many ways’
Preserving communities of interest is a common criterion across the country, and is used by more than half of the states. The Legislative Redistribution Commission accepted testimonials from citizens describing communities of interest on its website and in hearings it organized.
Martinez testified in three of those hearings, using Allentown – where 52% of residents are Hispanic or Latino – as an example.
Lehigh County currently contains seven State House districts, only one of which is a majority minority district. That area, District 22, encompasses most of Allentown and is currently represented by Peter Schweyer, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2015. Martinez believes the three districts that divide Allentown unfairly divide the Latin American population, and he hopes his involvement could improve. them.
“We are divided in so many ways that we don’t have a chance to represent ourselves,” Martinez said. “There is an opportunity to have someone who can represent us, who looks like us, who understands us, our culture, our community. And for me, it is important because it means that we are in the room.
Schweyer rejects the idea that a form of neighborhood alone can provide representation.
“Communities of color as a redistribution principle is something that I strongly support,” he said. “I believe in representation. But at the same time, there is no guarantee. We can’t just assume that just because we’re drawing a [majority-minority] district – African American, Latino, what’s the matter – that you’re going to guarantee that someone from that community is going to be elected. “
In Schweyer District, Hispanics make up 56% of the population, while communities of color make up over 75% of the entire district.
But some advocates argue that minority residents would be better served by neighborhoods in which they make up no more than 50% of the population.
If the Schweyer district were split in two, for example, it could create more opportunities for Hispanic voters to influence the election. This approach could also benefit communities that are not geographically concentrated enough to constitute a majority.
Vargas-De León suggested that this approach could be more equitable, but the legality of such an approach is subject to debate.
A critical mass
Martinez’s participation in the redistribution process comes as part of a greater awareness of the consequences the process can have for communities. But to really affect the mapping and define communities of interest, Pennsylvanians must be involved in the process en masse, which supporters say will happen for a host of reasons, from apathy to outright roadblocks.
While the constituency commission has solicited testimony from more than 50 citizen witnesses and opened an online portal to accept comments, the ability to testify is still limited by language barriers and time, among other constraints.
Because of these obstacles, Vargas De-León doubts that such a critical mass will increase.
“Historically, redistribution is one of the ways in which we have affected the voting power of marginalized communities,” said Vargas De-León. “It’s one of the kinds of silent tactics, I would say, because it’s not obvious when it’s done. But that’s part of the toolbox to keep these communities disenfranchised.
In County Lehigh, advocates for Latino residents say disengagement from the political process is hampering representation. Diana Robinson of Make the Road Pennsylvania, an organization dedicated to organizing working-class Latino voters, said the system was working against them.
Commission hearings that lacked translation, as well as Spanish instructions to voters in Berks County who did not have the correct mail-in ballot return date, are typical examples of neglect, said Robinson.
“It goes beyond just ensuring Latinx representation, but also having representatives and the ability to elect representatives who also share our values,” said Robinson.
Martinez hopes that his testimony will be reflected in the early drafts of the maps. Although the Pennsylvania Constitution sets a deadline of January 12, lawmakers have expressed a desire to speed up the process and release the first maps in the coming weeks.
“If it was easy, anyone could do it,” Martinez said, referring to the commission. “That’s what they signed up for. So we have to make sure we hold them accountable. “
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