Civil Rights Groups Worried About Voters First

According to a recent article in the Contra Costa Times, California civil rights groups believe the Voter First Initiative will reduce minority representation. The groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund say that they intend to fight the initiative in order to protect the gains minorities have made in the California legislature.

“It puts in numerous non-traditional redistricting principles that could make it difficult to fully respect the Voting Rights Act,” said Steven Ochoa, director of voting rights and policy research at the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit group that focuses on Latino and other minority groups’ political participation. “We believe reform is necessary. But this won’t accomplish what they think it will.”

For example, the ballot measure has, as one of its goals, “nested” districts among numerous criteria: Assembly districts that stay within the bounds of a single Senate district, which would avoid the gerrymandered boundaries that often result in snakelike districts that string through numerous communities. Studies have shown, however, that nesting locks communities into hard boundaries and work against the goal of creating minority-majority districts, Ochoa said.

But the backers of the initiative, including Common Cause, AARP, and the League of Women Voters say that minority interest will be protected if the initiative is enacted.

“We’re very cognizant of protecting minority interests and voting rights,” said Steven Reyes, an attorney with the political law firm Kaufman Downing. He is a former staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who helped draft the initiative. “We’re not assuming at all that any minority districts will be sacrificed. You still have the Voting Rights Act protection placed front and center in the initiative.”

The concern about minority representation echoes previous comments from Democratic Speaker Karen Bass as well as a Pennsylvania legislator commenting on redistricting efforts in his state.

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