Clark County school board’s proposed redistricting plan likely violates the Voting Rights Act
As the Clark County School District board meeting drew to a close on Wednesday, June 1, José Solorio walked to the podium and said that he is "very concerned with the path we're going down," a path which may limit Latino community representation on the school board.
The Clark County school board trustees each represent one of seven smaller districts. For weeks, CCSD trustees have been debating various proposals to redraw the boundaries of those seven districts to reflect population changes identified by the 2010 census. By the meeting on Wednesday, at least nine proposals, or "scenarios," had been presented to the board.
The scenario that the trustees seemed to prefer by the end of Wednesday's meeting, and which they indicated would be used as the base of any new proposals, was an adaptation of scenario 9. The members of the Latino community who appeared at the meeting, however, did not approve of either that scenario or the board's adaptation of it.
Solorio, a former school board trustee and an officer of Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus, presented his own scenario consisting of one majority-minority district, D, with a Latino population of approximately 60 percent, along with two other districts, C and G, the populations of which would be 34 percent and 40 percent Latino, respectively.
On the other hand, the scenario that the trustees favored, and which they asked to be altered slightly for their next redistricting meeting on June 7, has three districts with Latino populations hovering around 40 percent (38.3 percent in district C, 42.3 percent in district D, and 38.7 percent in district G) and another district, B, with 32.88 percent.
Not a single district in the board's currently preferred plan has a majority Latino population, despite the fact that Latino constituents make up 29.14 percent of Clark County's population, and Latino students make up 41 percent of the school district.
Solorio expressed concern that the proposal favored by the board would dilute the voting power of the Latino community.
"Not only are we diluting the potential voting strength, we are also cracking areas of Latino representation, Latino communities of interest," he said. "So we're diluting, we're cracking, and we're not taking the opportunity to establish a Latino district with 60 percent population and 53 percent voting age …. All that is out the window.
"This very much concerns me, and I'm sure it concerns many in the community …. I am the only one with a Latino name to have served on this board. With as many students that we have in this Clark County School District, we need to grab this opportunity to allow that to happen."
The implications of this situation extend beyond simply upsetting a minority. Weakening the ability of a minority to represent itself carries legal implications as well. According to section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, "No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
Courts have interpreted this statute to mean that the voting power of a minority cannot be diminished by "cracking" its vote over several districts, thereby inhibiting the community's ability to secure representation in any district. At the same time, "packing" that minority into a single district to limit it to one representative when it could in fact have several is also illegal. (See Thornburg v. Gingles and League of Latin American Citizens v. Perry.)
Sylvia Lazos, the Justice Myron Leavitt Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, co-chair of the Southern Nevada Diversity Council and member of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce education committee, interprets the VRA to mean that "minority voters deserve a voice, the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice who advocates for their substantive policy concerns and is representative of that community.
"That's what the Voting Rights Act is about," she says. "We need to have minority players in the political process. They will have a perspective on policy that is not shared by the white majority. You want to have fierce advocates of minority perspectives as part of the board."
While federal law is imprecise as to what diminishes the voting strength of a minority, Supreme Court rulings have laid out three criteria for creating minority districts. According to Lydia Quarles, JD, with the John C. Stennis Institute of Government, Mississippi State University, those criteria are:
- The minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
- The minority group is politically cohesive; and
- In absence of special circumstances, bloc voting by the white majority usually defeats the minority's preferred candidate.
Mary-Anne Miller, the board's legal counsel from the district attorney's office, has indicated that the board's current plan could be in violation of the VRA.
"Currently in your trustee districts [by 2000 boundaries]," she told the board, "there are three districts that either have a majority population or a strong showing of a Hispanic population."
Scenario 9, said Miller, "does not make any majority Hispanic district. It's been demonstrated to you that it is not unreasonable to have a majority Hispanic district. Under the Voting Rights Act, maintaining a majority district of people of color or race or ethnic background when not too difficult to do so is very important."
Whether the Latino community has a representative on the Clark County school board is potentially a quite serious matter. As of 2008, according to CCSD, only 54.9 percent of the district's Latino students graduate from high school, while 73.4 percent of white students do. The state averages for the subgroups were 57 percent and 76.8 percent, respectively. Some estimates produce even lower numbers. For example, Education Week calculated that, for the same year, Nevada's overall Latino graduation rate was merely 29.6 percent, compared to 55.8 percent for white students. By whatever measure, CCSD is clearly, by and large, failing its Latino youth.
Part of the school board's struggle with the redistricting process has been achieving a clear understanding of what constitutes a "community of interest." There is no set-in-stone definition, noted attorney Miller. Generally speaking, however, courts have held that a community of interest is a population with common interests that should be kept together when redrawing district boundaries so as to ensure that that population's interests are best represented. These communities usually vote as a bloc, and they are almost always historical, including Old Henderson and the African-American community of West Las Vegas.
According to José Solorio, the Latino community of Las Vegas shares "a culture, we share a language, we share similar employment, [and] similar income …." For these reasons, the community would seem rightly to qualify as a community of interest for reasons beyond the mere race of the constituents, as Shaw v. Reno requires.
One reason the board has failed to ensure adequate representation of the Latino community, however, is because the board has prioritized maintaining other populations as communities of interest. Some of these communities are legitimate, such as the black community, but some are more dubious. The board, for instance, has insisted on maintaining the unity of Summerlin, which is hardly a historical community by any measure, as even Miller noted at a prior redistricting session.
They have done so even to the possible detriment of the proper representation of the Latino community.
Soon after Solorio voiced his concerns, Trustee Deanna Wright hotly said, "At this point we're going to be taking steps backwards, I feel like we're going to be revisiting old scenarios and coming up with the same problems. You're going to have portions of that Nellis area and some of that stuff in B, you're going to have that Summerlin issue again, with being one, and you're going to have me losing Henderson, so it feels like we're chasing our tail and we've come full circle.
"And, you know, I … I mean, there's something I want to say that's really, really blunt, and I'm going to hold my tongue … I feel like we have been very, very cognizant of all of the different ethnicities and races and issues …. I'm getting frustrated that we're going to go back and start jimmy-rigging and gerrymandering again," she concluded.
Another reason for the school board's reluctance to accept a proposal like Solorio's lies in the lack of unanimity the trustees have found among their Latino constituents. While Solorio and Lazos support creating at least one district with Latinos in a simple majority, Trustee Erin Cranor reports her constituents say they would "overwhelmingly support creating two or more strongly Hispanic districts, around 40 percent."
According to Solorio, however, that is only because those constituents are not aware that there is a proposal available that could provide that majority. Moreover, the board proposal Wednesday would spread the Hispanic population among four districts, not two. Board attorney Miller was very clear in the beginning of the discussion that "one thing you want to avoid doing is taking strong populations … and unnecessarily spreading them out …. You … can't take a district and spread them across a higher number than is reasonable to dilute their voting power …. So, you could legally survive a challenge if you did one of two things: either concentrate them into two or three districts, or concentrate them in just C and D and make a supermajority in D."
Legally, then, the school board should concentrate the Latino population into two or three districts — no more, no less. While the board has announced plans to consider two more scenarios later today, June 7, the prospect of any significant shifts in the Latino population is dim.
At the end of the board meeting, Cranor asked if the board could permit Solorio to bring in another proposal aimed at resolving some of the issues the trustees had with his original plan.
"I am reluctant to do that at this point in time," said board President Carolyn Edwards, "and I'm reluctant to ask staff to do that, as well. I think the request to have Rick [Baldwin] and his staff look at some way of increasing the Hispanic in D and G a little more than what we've done is a request, and let's see if that's feasible or not. The fact is that it may be very hard for us to do all of what's being asked to do."
To increase the Latino populations in those two districts just "a little," however, will not be enough. District B, which is 32.88 percent Latino under the board's proposal, would probably need to lose about 10 percent of its population in order to weaken the dilution and concentrate the Latino population in the other districts.
Clark County is and has been changing significantly over the last few decades. While Latinos previously only comprised 21.96 percent of the population in 2000, they now represent nearly 30 percent of Clark County's total population of nearly 2 million.
To a large extent, the Clark County School District has failed this significant minority community and, in doing so, failed us all. Should there not be at least two trustees representing the Latino community and able to pursue resolution of the educational issues facing it?
When school board members reconvene today, possibly to decide on a redistricting proposal, they should bear this in mind.
Alexander Cooper is a policy intern with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.
Update (June 10, 2011): Modified the subheadline.