No More Racial Gerrymandering

Linda Chavez

9/24/2010 12:01:05 AM - Linda Chavez

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., seems to believe that her ethnicity entitles her to keep her congressional seat this election. In a Spanish language interview on Univision, the seven-term representative from California's 47th Congressional District accused "los Vietnamese y los Republicanos" of trying to take away a seat she says belongs to the Hispanic community, and therefore her.

Sanchez's Republican opponent this year is a state assemblyman, Van Tran, who came to the United States at the age of 10 from his native Vietnam just days before the fall of Saigon.

Sanchez's comments were highly offensive. But they reflect a reality that is little discussed these days, namely racial gerrymandering, which has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans for decades.

The 47th District spans across a populous area in California's Orange County, including the cities of Garden Grove and Santa Ana as well as parts of Fullerton and Anaheim. Orange County was once synonymous with wealth and conservatism. But the county has changed in recent years largely because of the influx of working- and middle-class Hispanics and Asians, many of them immigrants and small-businessmen and women. The changing demographics have also made this district less easy to pigeonhole.

Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years in order to reflect population changes in the latest decennial census. In most states, the legislature redraws the lines, and the party that controls the legislature often draws those lines to try to ensure its members stay in power. But amendments to the Voting Rights Act have played a large role in how the lines have been drawn since 1982. Unfortunately, the act has been interpreted by the courts to favor drawing legislative districts so that minority candidates have a good chance of being elected, creating so-called "safe" minority seats.

Sanchez was first elected in 1996, defeating long-term incumbent Republican Bob Dornan in what was then the 46th Congressional District. The election was controversial because Dornan asserted that Sanchez won her narrow victory, by 979 votes, because some non-citizens voted. After a lengthy congressional investigation, Sanchez was allowed to take her seat when investigators found only 748 tainted votes, not enough to change the results. When it came time to redraw district boundaries, the Democratic-controlled state Legislature packed in more minority voters to create a "safe" seat for Sanchez.

But Democrats have not been entirely to blame for this nonsense. The GOP, especially at the national level, has been quite content to see such districts drawn up, so long as these safe minority seats also meant that surrounding districts were whiter -- and therefore, presumably, more Republican. However, what Republicans may not have counted on in supporting racial gerrymandering is that as members of minority groups move up the economic ladder, they are more likely to vote Republican.

The 47th District shouldn't be a Hispanic or a Vietnamese seat. This election should not be fought on the basis of which ethnic group is entitled to representation in the halls of Congress -- and to his credit, Tran is not running as an ethnic candidate but as a conservative. Ironically, Sanchez has managed to hold onto her seat for 14 years because she eschewed easy categorization as knee-jerk liberal and ethnic politician.

There's probably a good reason why she chose to make her racial pandering remarks on Spanish-language television. No doubt, she was hoping only certain voters would hear them. But in the age of YouTube and ubiquitous blogs, her remarks have quickly reached a wider audience than she intended. And they could cost her the election in this year's tight race, even if the mainstream media give her comments a pass.

The only way to stop racial and ethnic appeals of this sort, however, is to remove the incentive by eliminating racial gerrymandering. Maybe the next time the Voting Rights Act comes up for extension, Republican members of Congress will be more amenable to eliminating guarantees of safe seats on the basis of skin color.