FOR generations after the Civil War, blacks in many parts of America were excluded from the political process by discrimination. Sometimes the bias was veiled behind ostensibly neutral voter qualifications, like literacy tests and poll taxes, but the intent was the same: Keep blacks away from the ballot box. That sort of overt disenfranchisment has been eradicated, but there's another way to nullify minority votes. Dilute them. Fragment minority voting blocs among districts with comfortable white majorities, so minority candidates can't prevail.
Last week, in what is seen as a major precedent-setting decision, a federal judge in California ruled that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had unconstitutionally gerrymandered the county's Hispanic voters into ballot-box irrelevance.
Although the mushrooming Hispanic community in Los Angeles County now makes up 35 percent of the population, no member of a minority group has ever been elected to the governing board. That hasn't been left just to chance. US Judge David Kenyon found that in 1981 the five white supervisors deliberately approved a redistricting plan which would protect their seats by watering down Hispanic voting power.
Judge Kenyon directed the supervisors to redraw district lines in a way to enhance Hispanic voters' potential clout. And the decision's ripples should be felt throughout the Southwest and even in some northern cities.
Hispanic leaders also have their sights trained on another method of vote dilution - at-large districts. In this system, all the members of a board or council are elected by all the voters in a jurisdiction, rather than as representatives of discrete districts. Thus the aggregate majority group in the jurisdiction can always prevail, regardless of various voter concentrations. Expect lawsuits challenging this practice.
As Hispanic activists in California, Texas, and elsewhere battle against such unfair voting practices, American democracy will be strengthened.