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What We Can Lean From the Census About Redistricting

02/23/2011 11:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just as the US Constitution required and Congress paid for the Bureau of the Census headed out into the country to do the hard and seemingly impossible work of counting everyone living in the country during 2010. That elusive number is a constantly moving target: People move in. They move out. They die, and start lives as newborn citizens in the great American enterprise.

The work of the Census Bureau keeps scholars, reporters, and economists in work for years. Before too long, it's time to start another count. Raul Cisneros of the Bureau said on this week's Destination Casa Blanca that work was already under way for 2020, even as the brand spanking new numbers make their way out to the public.

During this week's program we talked about the remarkable number of self-identified Latinos, some 45 million, and speculated about what it means right at this moment, and what it's going to mean for America going forward.

A representative of the Bureau, Raul Cisneros, said the response to the mailed survey was good, and the new ways the Census asked about race and ethnicity was still being tabulated. Work on the 2020 Census, Cisneros said, has already begun. The bureau is a creature of the executive branch, with oversight from the Congress, which holds its purse strings. At the last minute, Congressional Republicans tried to add lines of inquiry regarding citizenship and legal status in the country, but those efforts were defeated by the insistence, in the plain language of the US Constitution that every person is to be counted. Period. And that, Cisneros said, is what the bureau tried to do, and believes it succeeded in doing.

However, the attempts to fiddle with the census exposed some of the fault lines in the national debate over what to do about the millions of people who have come to live in the country without following the laws governing immigration. Should they be counted? One of the most consequential tasks for which the census data is a tool is doling out congressional seats to the states. Does it make sense to count people who aren't even supposed to be here for the purpose of apportionment? At this tense moment in the life of the nation, with soaring foreclosures and persistently high unemployment, the act of counting everyone within our borders ends up implicating other national debates that involve wealth and poverty, race, class, and nationality.

This year's census data was used to determine that Texas will have four more members of the House of Representatives in the next congress. Most of that additional population was added to Texas' total by the tremendous growth in Latino numbers. Illinois is losing a seat, as is New York. In both cases the losses would have been much more substantial if not for the large and growing number of Latinos. California held on to its seats for largely the same reason -- budget problems, economic distress, challenges to the Golden State's quality of life has seen non-Hispanic whites moving to next-door Arizona, Oregon on the northern border and nearby Washington.

Here's where it gets tricky: In the recent mid-term elections, Texans sent a huge delegation of Republicans to Washington, and gave the GOP bullet-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Oh yeah, and the legislature oversees the remapping not only of its own seats, but US House seats as well. How many of those new Texas seats will be drawn in ways that give large areas of Latino settlement a chance to elect a representative of their choice to Congress? Texas still must watch out for the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; it would be asking for legal challenges if none of the four new seats were composed in a way that would give Latino politicians a shot. But even in Texas, a majority of Latinos give their votes to Democrats. But oh yeah... the legislature is even more Republican than it used to be. What's your best guess? Two seats? Three seats? None?

When I was covering a redistricting battle in Chicago one influential alderman, a white guy with a huge army of Puerto Rican ward workers, said he was ready to stop all the games around redistricting, create 50 city council seats for Chicago's roughly three million people, and simply press a grid down on the map of the city to form more or less equal districts of some 60 thousand people. No reaching out a finger of land to "capture" a white, or black, or Latin neighborhood. Just, as he said, "let the chips fall where they may."

Part of the underlying assumption in the Voting Rights Act and in modern map-making is that white voters simply won't elect black and brown candidates even of their own party. The examples are legion... but the counter-examples are growing in number as well: Puerto Rico-born Raul Labrador now holds a US House seat from Idaho. Black Iraq War veteran Allen West now holds a South Florida house seat. West was sent to Washington from a district with a relatively small number of black residents. Both Labrador and West are Republicans.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois is now a congressional veteran after a new Latino-friendly seat was carved out of two huge barrios, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood on the North Side, and a largely Mexican one on the South Side. In between sits one of the largest groupings of black neighborhoods in America, the West Side, which starts just outside the famed Loop and runs to the city line. In order to make that seat, Illinois 4, mapmakers used the roadbed of an expressway, public parks, and other uninhabited pieces of land to stitch north and south together, since the law requires districts be "contiguous."

Is Luis Gutierrez a Puerto Rican congressman? Sure. Proudly, unapologetically so. Does he need a district created so he can win, and does a district have to have an overwhelming majority of Latino voters in order to remain a "safe" seat for him? Here's where it gets more complicated. Gutierrez has now been a member of congress for 18 years. He's one of the recognized experts on immigration law on the Hill. But he's also someone with deep expertise on housing and banking, issues that must surely resonate beyond the Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods that make up a lot of his district. Will only black Floridians vote for Rep. Alcee Hastings? Will only Latino Brooklynites vote for Rep. Nydia Velasquez? Can the strictures of the Voting Rights Act be safely loosened? I welcome your comments at the Destination Casa Blanca website, www.hitn.tv/dcb and at The Huffington Post. See you next week.

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