L.A. County Redistricting Without Maps: Do People Vote Based On Race?

The L.A. County redistricting battle will come to its dramatic conclusion next Tuesday. In two previous posts, we've tried to explain the demographics and the politics of the issue with the help of some unconventional visual aids: pie charts, Venn diagrams, and disembodied heads.

Today, it's time to get to the issue on which this entire debate depends: Do people vote based on race?

It's a tricky question to answer, but the county has to resolve it. If people do vote based on race, then the county has to draw a second Latino district. If they don't, then the county can maintain the status quo.


Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky kicked off this debate last month, when he wrote on his blog that "the notion that non-minorities won't vote for a minority candidate in L.A. County is antiquated."

"Los Angeles in 2011 is not the same as the Los Angeles of forty, thirty or even twenty years ago. Our county is politically and socially far more mature and broad-minded."

He cited three Latino candidates who have won white votes: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sheriff Lee Baca, and Assessor John Noguez.

David Fleming, a Valley business leader, took that argument even further in the Daily News on Thursday. Going Full Pollyanna, he proclaimed that "the Valley has no ghettos nor racial, religious, or ethnic strife." Therefore, he argued, there's no need to carve it up to create a second Latino district.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has been pushing hardest for a second Latino seat, disagrees. "As much as we all like to dream that we are now living in a colorblind society, and a couple of people have broken through the glass ceiling, it isn't an indication of the whole story," she said in an interview.

Matt Barreto, a Latino political scientist, studied 43 elections over the past 15 years in L.A. County. According to his report, he found evidence of "racially polarized voting" in 41 of them. Let's walk through a few of Barreto's examples. First up, Antonio Villaraigosa.

L.A. County Redistricting Without Maps: Do People Vote Based On Race?
Villaraigosa's 2005 victory represented a Latino breakthrough. That makes it easy to forget his 2001 defeat. That's the one in which Jim Hahn used a crack pipe to scare people away from him -- not so uplifting.

These pie charts show substantial voting along racial lines in that election. Two thirds of non-Latinos voted for Hahn, while Latinos overwhelmingly backed Villaraigosa.

OK, well that's just one election. And maybe there were substantive, non-crack-pipe reasons to vote against Villaraigosa. Fair enough. So let's move on to the 2003 recall election of Gov. Gray Davis.

L.A. County Redistricting Without Maps: Do People Vote Based On Race?

This election was unique because voters had to vote twice -- first, either for or against the recall, and then, for a replacement candidate.

The Democratic Party urged a "no on recall, yes on Bustamante position." As we can see, Latinos did that -- voting in equal measures for Gray Davis and for Cruz Bustamante.

But no other group did. In each case, there was a significant drop from Davis to Bustamante.


Now, maybe they had a good reason to support Gray Davis and oppose Bustamante. Who knows what voters think.

So let's look at an election that most voters probably gave no thought to at all: the 2010 Democratic primary for state Insurance Commissioner.

L.A. County Redistricting Without Maps: Do People Vote Based On Race?

This race featured two nearly identical candidates: Assemblyman Dave Jones and Assemblyman Hector De La Torre. The race was so far down the ballot that voters are unlikely to have spent much time researching it. The only difference most voters would have seen was between their surnames.

And that was enough to create substantial racial polarization. In L.A. County, according to Barreto's research, non-Latinos actually voted in greater proportion for Jones than Latinos voted for De La Torre. (Today, Jones is the insurance commissioner, and De La Torre hasn't been heard from in a while.)

Barreto's conclusion is pretty stark: "The most likely voting pattern to emerge is that White voters side with White candidates, Black voters side with Black candidates, Latino voters side with Latino candidates, and Asian voters side with Asian candidates... These voting patterns have consistently been found in rigorous statistical analysis from 1960 to 2010 in Los Angeles."

We shall overcome, indeed.

Now, the evidence is not all on one side of this question. Under pressure from Latino activists, the county has come up with a few more examples of Latinos who have achieved "crossover" success.

But if this goes to court, the county will have to do a lot better. The Latino activist community came to play. They have the scatterplots. They have the regressions. They are ready for combat.

And on that note, we conclude our three-part series, Redistricting Without Maps (TM).

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