Misinformation on Internet Redistricting
By Laughlin McDonald
The principle of establishing majority-minority voting districts -- districts formed to ensure minority voters a chance to elect to office public officials who represent them -- is threatened with death by drowning in a sea of misinformation and speculative assumptions. The hard facts are that the increase in the number of minority elected officials, particularly in the South, is the product of the increase in the number of majority-minority districts and not minorities being elected from majority-white districts.
Of the 17 African Americans elected to Congress in 1992 and 1994 from the states of the old Confederacy, all were elected from majority-minority districts. The only Black in the 20th century to win a seat in Congress from a majority-white district in one of the nine southern states targeted by the special preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act was Andrew Young of Georgia. He was elected in the biracial afterglow of the civil rights movement in 1972 from the Fifth District, where Blacks made up 44% of the voting age population. Still, voting was racially polarized and he got just 25% of the white vote.
Those who have claimed that racial bloc voting was a relic of the past in the new South always seemed to bring up the case of Andrew Young. His election was said to be proof that a moderate Black candidate who knows how to organize a campaign can pile up white votes and win anywhere. Young proved them wrong. In 1981, after serving in Congress for three terms, being US ambassador to the United Nations, and raising more money than in previous campaigns, Young got only nine percent of the white vote in his election as mayor of majority-Black Atlanta. In 1990, Young ran for governor of Georgia. In both the primary and runoff he got about a quarter of the white vote, but running statewide, where Blacks make up 27% of the population, he was defeated. Even for a candidate with extraordinary qualifications, racial bloc voting is a political fact of life.
A pattern of office holding similar to that in Congress exists for southern state legislatures. By 1994, there were 262 Black state legislators in the southern states, 234 (89%) of whom were elected from majority-Black districts. Of the 1,495 majority-white legislative districts, only 28 (two percent) were represented by Blacks.
There has also been a substantial increase in the number of minorities elected to city and county offices throughout the South. As with Congress and state legislatures, the increases can be traced directly to the creation of majority-minority voting districts.
Purely Anecdotal Evidence
It is possible, of course, to conflate the exceptions with the general rule, but to do so requires one to rely upon anecdotal evidence and ignore the larger facts. According to the Richard Pildes, author of the most complete study yet of the impact of the Voting Rights Act, â€œarguments that Blacks need not run in â€˜safe' minority districts to be elected, that white voters increasingly support Black politicians, that racial-bloc voting is now unusual -- all turn out to be among the great myths currently distorting public discussion.â€ ("The Politics of Race," Harvard Law Review 1359, 1367 (1995)).
Some have argued that partisanship, not race, is the determinative factor in elections. Blacks, however, generally have been unable to win in majority-white districts irrespective of the party affiliation of either the candidate or the majority of the district's voters. The argument also ignores the fact that partisanship is inextricably bound up with race. Much of the political dealignment and realignment that has taken place in this country over the last 30 years has itself been driven by race. Conservative whites have fled the Democratic Party for various reasons, but important among them have been the increased participation of Blacks in party affairs and the belief that the party was too preoccupied with civil rights.
Majority-minority districts are not a form of segregation, as some have charged. The majority-minority congressional districts in the South are actually the most racially integrated districts in the country, and contain substantial numbers of white voters -- an average of 45%. Moreover, Blacks in the South continue to be represented more often by white than by Black members of Congress -- 58% versus 42%.
While the converse is exceptional, whites are frequently elected from majority-minority districts. During the 1970s, whites won in 48% of the majority-Black legislative districts in the South, and in the 1980s in 27%. In Georgia, in 1994 whites won in 26% of the majority-Black legislative districts. Given these levels of white success, racially integrated majority-minority districts cannot be dismissed simply as "quotas" or "set-asides" for minorities.
Further, the evidence suggests that integrated majority-minority districts have promoted the formation of biracial coalitions and actually dampened racial bloc voting. In Mississippi, after the creation of the majority-Black Second Congressional District, Mike Espy, an African American, was elected in 1986 with 11% of the white vote and 52% of the vote overall. In 1988 he won re-election with 40% of the white vote and 66% of the vote overall. Voting patterns from the most recent elections in majority-minority congressional districts show a similar trend of increased white crossover voting.
Voting districts have traditionally been drawn to accommodate the interests of various racial or ethnic groups -- Irish Catholics in San Francisco, Italian Americans in South Philadelphia, Polish Americans in Chicago. No court has ever held these districts to be constitutionally suspect. A different standard should not apply to African Americans. To do so in the name of color-blindness or the Fourteenth Amendment, whose very purpose was to guarantee equal treatment for Blacks, would be ironic indeed.
On December 5, 1995, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in congressional redistricting cases from Texas (Bush v. Vera) and North Carolina (Shaw v. Hunt). In Bush, the lower court invalidated the state's two majority-Black districts and one of its majority-Hispanic districts on the grounds that they were impermissibly drawn on the basis of race. In Shaw, the district court rejected a challenge to two of North Carolina's majority-Black districts after concluding that, while race was a determinative factor in the drawing of district lines, the state had a compelling interest in taking race into account, and the redistricting plan was narrowly tailored to advance that interest.
The white plaintiffs in Shaw have argued that any consideration of race in redistricting is per se unconstitutional. If a majority of the Court accepts that argument it would amount to repeal of the Voting Rights Act, and would precipitate a massive purge of minorities from office at every level of government. Shaw and Bush present the Court with a critical opportunity to reject such a radical interpretation of the Act. The decision is expected to be handed down this spring. If the court invalidates redistricting plans in Shaw and Bush, a flood of similar cases are likely to follow, and already overtaxed advocates will be sorely strained to defend existing majority-minority districts.
Highly integrated majority-minority districts are good for minorities because they provide equal electoral opportunities. But they are also good for our democracy. They help break down racial isolation and polarization. They help insure that government is less prone to bias, and is more inclusive, reliable, and legitimate. These are goal that all Americans should support.
About the author:
Laughlin McDonald is director of the Southern Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.