By Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, University of Nebraska Omaha
OMAHA, NEB -- At the beginning of the year there was much speculation as to how the rapid growth of the U.S. Latino population in the last decade would influence the redistricting process across the country. Growth rates in new destination states such as Nebraska (77%), Nevada (82%), and North Carolina (111%) have emerged as battlegrounds over the extent to which Latinos will impact this decennial process. In this entry, we look at the effort to redraw both the state legislative and congressional districts around the center of Nebraska’s Latino population, the southeastern portion of the Omaha metropolitan area. More specifically, we explore the controversial attempt by Republican members of the Nebraska Legislature’s Redistricting Committee to create a Latino “super-majority” district in South Omaha, while simultaneously decreasing Latino influence in the east Sarpy County communities of Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista by removing them from Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.
Changing Demographics in Nebraska Provide Interesting Context for Plans
Nebraska’s Latino population increased by 77 percent over the past decade to reach 167,405, or roughly 10% of the state’s population. Most of the counties that gained population are in eastern Nebraska near the state’s largest cities of Omaha and Lincoln. As reflected in the districts listed in the table below, it is this eastern growth that is largely responsible for the need for lawmakers to redraw the lines for the state’s three congressional and 49 legislative districts this year. This population growth is apparent in Omaha, where in 1970, there were approximately 6,500 Latinos (almost all U.S.-born) in the South Omaha community. By 2000, that population has exploded to over 30,000 Latinos, with a large majority of the growth fueled by immigrants arriving from Mexico, and internal Latino migrants from Chicago and the American southwest.
Consequently, the 2010 Census placed the Latino population in South Omaha at over 45,000, but with only 47% of Latinos being U.S. citizens. These changing demographic patterns have led to competition within the Latino community between the “original” Latino community, and the emerging Latino immigrant population. For example, Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, the losing Latina Republican state legislature candidate in 2008, and Somos Republicanos of Nebraska, a Hispanic Republican grassroots organization claim that the current districting scheme “divides South Omaha into several legislative districts, and combines South Omaha neighborhoods with very different neighborhoods outside the area.”
Packing Strategies and “ Threshold” Effects Key in State Legislative Districts
Initially the Legislative Bill 703 introduced by the Republican representatives sought to create a Latino “super majority” (approximately 70% Latino with a Latino VAP of 57%) district in Legislative District 7 (LD7). LD7 is currently 48% Latino with 39.6 % Latinos of voting age, so this proposal would reduce the Latino population of LD5 from 35.5% to 20%LD5 and reducing the Latino VAP from 28.9 to 13%. The proposal immediately drew protests from the two non-Latino State Senators representing the districts, Heath Mello -D (LD5) and Jeremy Nordquist-D (LD7). They and their supporters argued that only under limited circumstances - for instance when a racial minority’s political clout is being suppressed – can a state seek to create “majority-minority” districts. Moreover, questions began to surface as to whether the “packing” proposal would violate elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by essentially diluting the racial composition of District 5. Almost immediately, the proposal was withdrawn and another, essentially retaining the existing district boundaries was introduced.
The argument of Nebraska Republicans to “pack” district 7 to ensure a safe district for a Latino Republican candidate appears to be line with the Republican approach highlighted in a previous Latino Decisions post, and is grounded in the academic argument that descriptive representation leads to greater substantive representation. However, this appears to be a “false choice,” as any attempt at do so directly violates the “racial dilution” clause of Section 2 in the VRA, and does not ensure victory for a Latino candidate, as Latinos only constitute 28% of the voting population in the district. Furthermore, Barrientos-Patlan only won 31% of the vote in the 2008 general election in LD5 (where turnout was over 70%).
These trends point to the need for a higher threshold for Latinos within districts due to lower turnout rates, citizenship rates, and voter registration among Latinos more generally (See Lublin and McDonald, 2006). The future Latino population trends for LD 5 and 7 however suggest good potential for Latino candidates due to high concentrations of Latinos and that over 90% of the Latinos under the age of 18 in Nebraska are U.S. citizens.
Latinos are Vital to Congressional District Plans in Nebraska
The Congressional redistricting proposal, while not as immediately controversial, also presents issues highly salient to Latinos that could serve as the grist for legal challenges. First, the redrawing of the lines of CD 1 and 2 significantly favors the Republican Party by removing a portion of eastern Sarpy County that is demographically Democrat and Latino relative to surrounding districts. While Sarpy County is only 15% minority, the city of Bellevue and the adjacent Offutt Air Force Base are much more diverse (25% and 30% respectively). This plan (depicted in maps below) significantly weakens the voting strength of Latinos in these areas by shifting them into a congressional district that is much more heavily Republican and white. This now raises a significant question as to whether the proposal, approved by the State Legislature on a purely party line vote of 34-15, does not violate tenants of both the 14th Amendment and the VRA. In spite of testimony that the re-drawn district boundaries displace and marginalize the electoral impact of Latino voters in eastern Sarpy County, the Nebraska State Legislature has pushed the passage of LB 704 forward.
Partisan Implications and Conclusions
The head of the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee, State Sen. Chris Langemeier, noted that although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, the “political fangs come out during redistricting”. In 2008, CD-1 surprisingly went to Barack Obama and is viewed as the only district in the state in which Democratic candidates have a reasonable chance at victory. In fact, Obama’s win marked the first time in 44 years that Nebraska had provided a presidential electoral vote for a Democrat, thus the stake are high.
As alluded to in the introduction, the Nebraska case is by no means an isolated issue. As depicted here before, the rise in Latino population ensures that many states will wrestle with similar issues related to the apportionment and redistricting process. The ability of the Republican Party to secure many state houses and governorships during the 2010 elections provides Republicans with the power to shape election outcomes for the next decade through the re-districting process. However, they must do so without alienating the growing Latino electorate. The rising number of Latinos and their relative propensity to support Republican candidates ensures that Latinos will be a major factor in the re-districting process in Nebraska and other locales not traditionally associated with the Latino population.
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado is Professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Office of Latin-Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Works Cited in Post
David Lublin and Michael P.McDonald, “Is It Time to Draw the Line? The Impact of Redistricting on Competition in State Legislative Elections,” Election Law Journal 5:2 (2006): 144-157