TAMPA — A group of Hispanic leaders has filed a protest with the U.S. Department of Justice challenging Hillsborough County commissioners' plans for redrawing their political districts.
The Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition says the proposed map actually dilutes the ability of Latino voters to influence elections at a time when their population has exploded in Central Florida.
Though Hillsborough County's Hispanics accounted for 55 percent of population growth in the past decade, the proposed political district map, "actually weakens their power," said Diana Sen, senior counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York City-based civil rights group assisting the effort.
"The county has a burden to show they are not weakening Hispanic voting strength," Sen said during a ceremonial signing of the protest letter Wednesday, "and at a time when they should be increasing it."
The groups point out that five other boundary maps considered by commissioners would have strengthened the Hispanic vote by concentrating part of it in one district. And they would have created districts that were more compact than the ones commissioners adopted.
Hillsborough County has seven commissioners, including three chosen in countywide elections. The other three represent parts of the county, very generally South and West Tampa (District 1), Central and East Tampa (District 3), northern Hillsborough (District 2) and eastern and southern Hillsborough (District 4).
District 3 has a concentration of African-American voters and has recently elected black elected leaders, while there is no so-called Hispanic opportunity district.
The coalition takes particular exception to the new boundaries for District 1, which includes the historically Hispanic stronghold of West Tampa. The new boundaries lower the percentage of Hispanics from 35 percent in 2001 to 32 percent, even though the Latino population accounted for 94 percent of the population growth in that area, according to the protest letter.
District 3 also would see its Hispanic population shrink slightly, by less than 1 percent, with the new maps. But the group says that is not insignificant since Hispanic residents account for an overwhelming share of the growth there.
Democrat Les Miller, who signed off on the initial map, which further strengthened his African-American voting base, is now floating a proposal to carve out a Hispanic district. His proposal, scheduled to come back up next year, would require a referendum.
Hillsborough County voting rights practices are overseen by the Department of Justice due to past discriminatory activity. That means the agency has to approve redistricting proposals every 10 years. It is now reviewing the county's redistricting map proposal.
"What we're asking for is an equal place at the table," said William Guerra, a member of the Hillsborough County Hispanic Democratic Caucus, which is part of the coalition.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.