Census undercount and a biased redistricting process may curb AZ Latinos’ growing political clout

February 4, 2022 10:08 am

Illustration by Niyazz | iStock / Getty Images Plus

It wasn’t so long ago that Latino leaders in Arizona were predicting the community was poised to make major strides in growing its political influence across the state. 

Most observers thought the results of the 2020 Census would show the state’s Latino population wasn’t just growing fast, but also becoming a bigger share of Arizona’s booming population. The state added about 760,000 new residents from 2010 and 2020. 


Since federal congressional districts are allocated based on how the nation’s population breaks down geographically, many were convinced the state would gain a 10th seat, one of which might elect a Latino, bringing the number of Latino members in Congress from Arizona to three. The once-a-decade redrawing of the state’s 30 legislative districts, according to early predictions, could have resulted in nine solidly majority-Latino districts across the state. 

But things haven’t worked out the way most of Arizona’s estimated 2.4 million Latinos have hoped.

There is no 10th congressional district. And after months of haggling and finger-pointing, Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission has drawn up maps that fail to carve out any new predominantly Latino state legislative districts.

If you ask Pete Rios, a sage of Arizona politics, the state’s Hispanic electorate fared poorly in the latest redistricting process. Rios is a former state Senate president, and the only Latino to ever serve in that post. He also recently served as a Pinal County supervisor.

“The redistricting process was clearly tilted in favor of the Republicans,” said Rios, who put the blame for that squarely on Erika Neuberg, the commission’s chair. “Neuberg was a lifelong Republican, who only switched parties and turned independent a couple of years ago. She showed her true colors.”

“The process was rigged” and Neuberg was “anything but fair,” Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo recently told the Arizona Republic. Neuberg roundly denied the charge.

Gallardo is co-chair of the Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting, a group funded by the liberal Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The group offered up its own version of redistricting maps and feedback for the commission to consider throughout the process.

In the end, the Latino Coalition failed to get the commission to draw an eighth majority-Latino legislative district, though its pressure almost certainly ensured Latino voters wouldn’t lose serious ground as a result of the commission’s work.

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, a Phoenix Democrat and Pete Rios’ daughter, said the “Republicans are taking victory laps” as a result of the redistricting process, though she noted the outcome would likely have been much worse had it been left to the Republican-controlled state Legislature to redraw the maps.

Beyond the role of the AIRC, the entire process may have been stacked against Latinos even before it began.

Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that outlawed a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Arizona — which has a long history of discriminating against Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans — no longer has to clear changes to its election and voting laws in advance with the U.S. Department of Justice.

That so-called preclearance requirement used to apply to the redistricting process in a number of states across the country.  As a result, “Arizona’s maps (were) crafted to avoid having the DOJ reject them.”

The biggest impediment to Latino gains during the latest round of redistricting was what many suspect was a major census undercount in Arizona in 2020. The Constitution requires that “every person” in the country is counted once every 10 years. Of course, that never really happens. Counting 330 million people isn’t exactly easy, especially when it comes to counting communities of color, who tend to rent instead of owning a home, which means they move more often. Communities of color, as well as  immigrants, can be extremely wary of federal workers who show up at the front door asking a bunch of questions.

So, census undercounts are not unusual, and the latest undercount was almost certainly bigger than usual, thanks to former President Trump’s partisan and racists attacks on the census process. Trump’s goal was simple: do everything possible to worsen the undercounts of people of color and immigrants as a means for limiting their representation in Congress and state legislatures nationwide.

It also didn’t help that the pandemic hit just as the census count was getting underway in early 2020. 

How much of an undercount occurred? For now, that’s anyone’s guess. But if the outcome of the census count in Somerton, Arizona is any indication, the undercount of Latinos across the state may have been massive.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the 2020 Census found that Somerton, located along the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma, now has about 90 fewer residents than it did in 2010.

Somerton’s City Manager Jerry Cabrera begs to differ. The Census Bureau’s numbers “do not make sense whatsoever,” said Cabrera, especially given that residents there have built about 850 new homes in the past 10 years and the city recently opened its first public high school to accommodate Somerton’s burgeoning student population. 

According to the U.S. Census, Somerton has about 15,000 residents. City officials, meanwhile, put the number at closer to 20,000. If the city is right, that would be a 25 percent undercount.

Aside from having to live with the notion that the federal government believes a quarter of Somerton’s residents don’t exist, population undercounts have consequences. Cabrera predicts the city could lose $800,000 a year in “state-shared” federal revenue based on the flawed census count. 

Now multiply the situation in Somerton times the number of Latinos across the state who may have been missed by a census undercount, and you’ll start to understand why many Latinos are feeling short changed by Arizona’s redistricting process.


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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of a major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught creative and non-fiction writing, ethnic studies, theater, literature and Latino politics at ASU. The founder and producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co., James is the author of more than 30 plays, including the upcoming “The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez.”