By Pilar Marrero, Ethnic Media Services

Editor’s Note: Amidst growing concerns over pandemic-related
delays in the census deadline, one veteran voting rights activist
finds reason to hope and sees potential for gains in
representation by underserved groups, especially Latinos.
EMS contributing editor Pilar Marrero is an author and veteran
reporter for La Opinion.
LOS ANGELES — Thomas Saenz is that rare voting rights
advocate who is optimistic about delays created by the COVID
19 pandemic in filling out census forms – and in submitting data
for use in redistricting.
Delaying the deadline for data used to redraw voting districts
for seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures will negatively
affect elections in several states, redistricting reformers like
Common Cause argue. They have asked Congress to review a
request from the Census Bureau for a four month delay.
Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American
Legal defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), sees the delay
as a way to ensure a more accurate census count. That’s the
key, he argues, to ensuring fairer political representation,

whether on school boards, city councils, state legislative and
congressional districts – even elections for local dog catcher.
Despite the low self-response rates for Latino areas, Saenz
believes there’s a real potential for more Latino representation
in the 2021 redistricting across the country.
“The low response rates were expected. This delay gives not
only the Census Bureau but groups like NALEO, all of us, more
time to get people to respond. And the more time we get, the
more complete the count. Some people just take time to be
convinced and often on the ordinary timeline, there’s not
enough time to do that,” Saenz says.
“This was never going to be a great Census because of the
Trump Administration which is the most divisive ever,” Saenz
adds on reflection. “But again, having more time is good.”
Saenz pins hopes on increases in the census count in Texas,
where the gains in Latino immigration over the last decade
have been dramatic. “Even if the state is not investing any
money in outreach, it’s projected Texas can get up to three new
Congressional seats, and at least one or two of those should be
Latinos.” He predicts push back from the state legislature,
which conducts redistricting, unless the Democrats take the
state house in the upcoming elections, Then, he says, it’s a
different ball game.
California, on the other hand, may lose a seat but Saenz says it
won’t be a Latino one. “I expect to see a current seat that isn’t

Latino becoming Latino.” And he expects to see a gain in
Arizona and possibly one in Illinois, given the increase in both
states’ Latino population. “Illinois has one Latino majority seat
and I expect it to become two, if the population has increased
there as I expect it has. This might be the time”

Redistricting usually starts with the delivery of “apportionment
counts” to the President on or before Jan 1 — the total
population count of each state and the number of
congressional seats to which each state is entitled based on
that count. The total number of seats is fixed at 435, but the
population of each state determines whether they win or lose
districts every 10 years. Redrawing legislative districts based on
census data usually begins on April 1, at the latest.
Because the whole Census operation has been delayed by the
pandemic, the Census Bureau has asked Congress to extend the
deadline for delivering data about Congress to April 30, 2021,
and to the states to July 31, 2020.
Saenz sees potential pluses in delaying reapportionment of the
House of Representatives from the end of December to April. It
may actually mean a new President will be in office who won’t
try to discount immigrants in the redistricting count, Saenz
Last July the Trump Administration issued an executive order to
have departments collect “citizenship data” for the Census

Bureau. It is a move widely seen as building the case for states
to restrict redistricting counts to citizens only – rather than
immigrants. The executive order came on the heels of the
Supreme Court’s ruling prohibiting the addition of a question
about citizenship in the Census questionnaire.
Delaying state data will also allow a new president to “stop any
mischief” regarding the use of citizenship data to exclude non
citizens from redrawing legislative districts. “A new
administration can come in in a deliberate manner and stop
that from going on… If more time is needed to gather and
deliver the data, they should not waste time on the executive
order anyway. They must concentrate resources on tabulating
the questionnaires, and not in having departments turn over
citizenship data to the Census Bureau.”
One argument against postponing the data is that redistricting
will be a rushed process. Here again, Saenz takes a pragmatic
view. “Texas is always a rushed process because the legislature
is only in session for two months – March and April – and they
have an early filing deadline for candidates in 2022. In the
worst case, they may have to change the deadline. For us, if
there is a legal challenge to their redistricting, it will be a
burden, but it’s okay.”
In California, it’s not the legislature but a commission of
appointees that oversees redistricting. Saenz says the
commission can do some of its work before the data is
released, starting with testimony from communities about their

interests in being represented, “They won’t know the numbers
or be able to promote maps, but they can say: ‘We don’t want
to split this area.’”
Redistricting advocates worry about Virginia and New Jersey
which hold legislative e elections in 2021. Saenz says, “Maybe
they will have an election without new lines. Is that a disaster?
In my mind it’s not.”
For Saenz, the significant increase in the Latino population over
the last decade will create real opportunities for more political
representation in the decade ahead. More time gives him
reason to hope for a more accurate count.( PM / IM)

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