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Eye On Illinois: Census methodology key to map challenge lawsuit

Legal disputes over new legislative districts based on Latino representation may hinge on circumstances beyond plaintiffs’ control.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund challenged Democrats’ initial maps in June and restated opposition this week after lawmakers approved updated boundaries. According to Capitol News Illinois, MALDEF claims in a lawsuit that for the last decade there were five House and three Senate districts with Latinos constituting a majority of the voting-age population, but the new maps shrink those numbers to four and three.

That’s a problem, MALDEF alleged, because although the state’s population shrunk by about 7,900 since 2010, the Latino population grew by almost 310,000. Not even 4% of the General Assembly would have districts where a majority of voters are Latinos.

The filing takes care to focus on the voting population and not the composition of the legislature, because nothing can force the right choices onto the ballot. Latino voters can elect Black candidates or vice versa, a district with slightly more men can elect a woman and so on. But a sharp defense attorney wouldn’t have to look far to find a reasonable counter argument.

“Data comparisons between the 2020 census and 2010 census race data should be made with caution,” the U.S. Census Bureau said Aug. 12, “taking into account the improvements we have made to the Hispanic origin and race questions and the ways we code what people tell us.”

In 2015, census officials started researching and testing information, then implemented those findings in a 2018 test. That work “enabled a more thorough and accurate depiction of how people self-identify, yielding a more accurate portrait of how people report their Hispanic origin and race,” the Bureau continued.

“These changes reveal that the U.S. population is much more multiracial and more diverse than what we measured in the past. We are confident that differences in the overall racial distributions are largely due to improvements in the design of the two separate questions for race data collection and processing as well as some demographic changes over the past 10 years.”

If Latino population growth is more about counting methods than raw numbers, it might be difficult to sustain a legal challenge rooted in the 2020 data. There’s no way to retroactively conduct the 2010 Census to see how many people should’ve been counted as Latino.

And yet, Democrats could breathe easier had they preserved the eight Latino districts. A Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning report showing Latino growth trends from 2000 to 2010 indicates trends are attributable to more than method. By 2030 the Latino base should be larger still.

A gubernatorial veto seems unlikely, but regardless of how this situation resolves the issue of Latino representation is undeniable.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.