After four months of meetings, a Los Angeles County commission charged with recommending how to redraw county electoral boundaries came down to a fundamental disagreement: Would creating two majority-Latino electoral districts be a "racial gerrymander" or a way to address historical racial polarization in Los Angeles County?
That was the disagreement among the 10 members of the Boundary Review Committee (BRC), which finalized a plan for the County Board of Supervisors last month.
The divergent opinions were reflected in the final vote. The four members who came from the two districts with majority Latinos or Latino and black populations voted one way and the members from the three districts that are majority white or white and Asian voted another.
Committee members appointed by Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas voted for a plan, called S1, that would create three districts that would be have a population of more than 50 percent voting-age Latinos, in line with the 47 percent Latino population number in Los Angeles County as a whole.
The committee members from the other three districts saw things differently. Their plan, which passed, would have one district in which the voting-age population is almost 70 percent Latino, another with 49.5 percent and three in which Latino voters make up no more than 37 percent.
The districts would not be substantially altered from their existing boundaries (see accompanying plans and map under photo) and would result in fewer than 200,000 people being moved from their existing district.
That plan will be reviewed in a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, and there is no obvious way for how to resolve the issue: Passing the plan requires four of the five supervisors to vote for it, and if the supervisors feel the same way their appointees do, neither of the plans that committee members endorsed would be able to be adopted.
Latino groups and the board members appointed by Molina argue it is simple math: Latinos make up about 47 percent of the population, the single largest demographic group.
Latino population has grown over the last decade, while other demographic groups have shrunk. Putting a disproportionate number of Latinos in one district while keeping three districts with low Latino numbers simply does not make sense.
"This is basically about not violating the Voting Rights Act by packing a district," said Alan Clayton of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association at the committee's last meeting in June.
The federal Voting Rights Act is supposed to ensure first and foremost that districts are fairly representative of minority groups, said Steven Ochoa of the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund (MALDEF). All other considerations must legally take a back seat.
"The other side trying to come up with excuses, like communities of interest, compactness, voter deferral issues, none of which trumps the Voting Rights Act," Ochoa said.
Ochoa, who argued repeatedly in front of the BRC that its preferred plan would result in being on the losing end of a lawsuit, said the focus from the rest of the committee has been on "incumbency protection."
That's because the plan that MALDEF endorsed—along with the appointees from Molina and Ridley Thomas—is extremely disruptive both to incumbents and to the public in general. It relocates about 3 million people from one district to another.
That set off a wave of panic among some here in the South Bay.
At the final committee meetings, the committee heard one city official after another lamenting that the plan would move them out of the district of County Supervisor Don Knabe (who represents Hermosa Beach and other cities in the Fourth District) and would effectively split his district in two.
Then there is a voter deferral issue. Since Board of Supervisor candidates run in offset years, with three seats on the ballot in 2012 and two in 2014, it could result in some county voters not getting to vote for six years.
For example, a voter in Knabe's district who last voted for him in 2008 would vote in 2012, but if he were moved to the Third District—as many of the South Bay cities would be—his district would not be on the ballot until 2014. Conversely, some who voted in 2010 would get to vote again in 2012.
That's not a good enough reason to not make changes, said MALDEF spokesman Ochoa.
"If that's the reason not to change the districts, then you're never going to be able to make a change," Ochoa said. But Knabe, in a statement released Friday, said it is—he supports the BRC's A2 Plan and opposes the S1 plan.
"Under Plan A2, only about 150,000 residents countywide would be shifted to a new Supervisorial District. Here in the Fourth, we would absorb the city of Santa Fe Springs, and the unincorporated areas of South Whittier and the remainder of Rowland Heights. This is the least disruptive plan," he said, adding at the end of the statement, "Don’t split communities that have shared the same interests, services and representation for over 20 years. It’s been working just fine."
Some of the reasons for the opposition to the S1 plan went beyond simple concern over the well-being of constituents. One commission member saw it as overly responsive to ethnicity.
Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP political consultant who was appointed to the committee by County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, referred to the plan to prioritize the creation of two Latino majority districts as "racial gerrymandering."
He denied contentions that Latinos would prefer to vote for a Latino candidate or that there might be a different pattern to how Latinos vote versus non-Latinos.
Meanwhile, Knabe said he is "proud" of the county's and his district's racial diversity and "under the A2 Plan I support, the Latino population would grow to over 42 percent of our residents."
Other members saw it differently—Sean Andrade, who was appointed by Molina, saw the plan as perpetuating historical tendencies to keep Latinos from having the representation they want.
"The ugly truth is that voting in Los Angeles has been historically polarized between Latinos and non-Latinos," Andrade said.
At Tuesday's board meetings there will no shortage of people suggesting that the plan the committee endorsed will lead to a lawsuit, Ochoa and Clayton among them.
Ochoa said MALDEF's lawyers would evaluate the possibility of litigation if the plan were ultimately passed, though he said he could not discuss any specific plans for potential litigation.
But committee members also heard multiple interpretations of whether the plan would violate federal voting laws: A law professor hired by Gloria Molina's office testified that the committee's preferred plan was a clear violation.
At the same time, the county counsel brought in to evaluate the plans told committee members that either plan would comply with federal laws.
Ochoa said that committee members are getting bad advice, adding the county would lose a lawsuit on this basis, as it did in 1990, when a case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, the ACLU and MALDEF resulted in the creation of the first-ever Latino majority district in the county.
The Supervisors do not have a lot of time on their hands to come to a decision. The state requires them to have a plan by Oct. 1, and they must hold two public hearing with at least two weeks notice ahead of time for each one, said Lori Glasgow, Deputy Chief of Staff for Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
Unlike the , in which state legislators no longer have the final say over the districts, county Supervisors will ultimately vote on their new boundaries.
That means that they will need to come to some consensus on when to hold public hearings by their Aug. 16 meeting. And, they will need four supervisors to agree on a plan by October, Glasgow said.
If they cannot, the back-up option is for a committee made up of representatives of the county Sheriff's Department, Assessor's Office, and District Attorney's office to come up with a plan, Glasgow said.
Would you prioritize minimizing disruption to existing districts or pursuing a more balanced minority representation?