CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : At Issue: Citizens' Right to Govern : That immigrants should affect the distribution of political power as soon as they arrive here is a remarkable proposition.

Just what are the issues in the voting-rights lawsuit brought against the County of Los Angeles and its Board of Supervisors?

Most people believe the issues are whether a Latino should be represented on the five-member board and whether the current board members are fighting to prevent minority representation, fearing that their power and control could be threatened.

This is not so. The issues are much larger, much more wide-ranging and much more lasting, especially with the results of the 1990 census due soon and with mandated reapportionments that will follow for many state and local governments.

For example, one of the overriding issues in the case is this: Should an area be reapportioned on the basis of the total number of persons in the county? Or should reapportionment be based on the number of citizens eligible to vote?

The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated the "one person, one vote" standard for determining how state and local governments should redistrict. Put in its simplest terms, that rule says that in an area like Los Angeles County you add up all the people and then divide by five, the number of supervisorial districts in the county.

Fair representation for all voting-age citizens is the intent and the assumption. Whether that happens or not is another subject and not germane to this case.

The key question is whether the one-person, one-vote test in redistricting should permit those who are not eligible to vote to be counted with those who are, in deciding fair representation.

The argument of the plaintiffs--including the federal government and Yolanda Garza (in whose name the suit against the county was filed)--is that total population should be the test. The county argues that citizenship or voting-age citizenship should be used.

The Supreme Court has never specified whether population or citizenship (citizens of all ages or citizens of voting age) is required. Both have been held permissible.

(The court has upheld a New York state constitutional provision specifying citizenship. Kansas has used its own agricultural census, which excludes aliens. Hawaii subtracts tourists and military personnel from census figures when reapportioning.)

In the past, it didn't matter much which measure was used. There were not large concentrations of undocumented immigrants or adult non-citizens. It still doesn't matter in much of the country. In Los Angeles County, it matters a lot.

The plaintiffs have proposed districts equal in population but grossly unequal in the number of citizens and voters. For example, the proposed Latino District 1 would have only 366,145 registered voters, while District 5 would have 835,408.

As a result, the value of a vote in District 1 would be worth more than twice that of District 5. And District 1, with just one-tenth of the registered voters in the county, would control one-fifth of the board seats.

This is not equality but an unabashed ethnic preference imposed solely to create a district in which Latino registered voters are a majority. California has apportioned its congressional, state Senate and Assembly seats in the same inequitable manner.

How is it possible to create a district equal in population but with so few registered voters? Because the plaintiffs have proposed creating at least one or two districts with overwhelming numbers of non-citizens.

They didn't have to do so. Los Angeles could, for instance, create five districts equal in population but without such gross variances in citizens and registered voters. Of course, Latinos then would not be a majority of the eligible voters in any district.

Remember, only citizens can vote. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that aliens (legal and illegal) are entitled to education and welfare benefits and to earn a living, but "the right to govern is reserved for citizens."

The plaintiffs want to count non-citizens in allocating political power in the county--a criterion unrelated to and, in fact, at odds with the exercise of the political franchise by the only people legally entitled to the exercise of the franchise: citizens.

That immigrants should be permitted to affect the distribution of political power in this country as soon as they arrive here is a remarkable proposition indeed. No other country embraces such a notion and neither should ours.

This issue goes to the very heart of the future of politics in California and the Southwest, where Latinos are concentrated. It is the issue of the 1990s.

It is also confounded by the following demographic realities:

--The growth of the Latino population is a relatively recent phenomenon, fueled by political and economic events abroad.

--Only 42% of Los Angeles County's Latinos age 18 and older are citizens, compared to 97% of black residents and 95% of whites. Latinos were 28% of the county's population by 1980 but only 14% of its citizens.

--Recent immigrants cluster together, but two-thirds of Latino voters live in areas that are less than 40% Latino in voter registration. Latino citizens, in other words, are residentially dispersed and do not live where the most recently arrived Latinos do.

--Latinos come from many countries, not just Mexico, and are not necessarily politically cohesive.

These facts make drawing districts to concentrate Latinos into an effective political force problematic at best. The worthy objective of Latino empowerment, however, does not justify trampling on the rights of other voters in the county.

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