Drawn Out of the Game Some voters and scholars say redistricting recalls the specter of disenfranchisement.
By Tracie Powell
The way today’s legislators draw political boundary lines reminds Deralyn Davis of the kinds of obstacles that kept Blacks from voting back when her grandmother had to pay $1.75 for the privilege.
The Fort Worth native is a tough, no-nonsense 71-year-old grandmother who stared down bigots and ignored threats while traveling throughout the South to register voters during the late 1960s. But when politicians recently redrew political boundary lines in her state, Davis says they ended any chance she and other minorities had of electing candidates of their choice.
Now she’s afraid her past struggles mean nothing.
“This is the backdoor way to disenfranchise minorities all over again,” Davis says. “It’s the modern day poll tax.”
This November’s mid-term elections could propel Black leaders to the most powerful positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, provided Democrats manage to take control of the chamber. But some political observers say redistricting ploys could play a large role in keeping Democrats out of power for another term.
Redistricting — it’s basic to American democracy, but has grown increasingly complex. Complicated or not, playing God with geography for political gain dramatically impacts the lives of every voter, but especially Blacks, Hispanics and other groups struggling for power. Each year, across the country hundreds of politicians are chosen for office — long before the first voter casts his or her ballot. Computer technicians, at the behest of politicians, use sophisticated software to draw bizarrely shaped legislative districts that determine who gets elected and, ultimately, what issues get debated.
Redistricting is all about getting and keeping power. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities say it’s tough enough just getting their representatives into office, and they fear that redistricting is making things worse. Many scholars and activists argue that if the party in power continues to be allowed to draw districts that favor their candidates, minority voters will increasingly find themselves drawn out of the game.
Intended and Unintended Consequences Democrats and Republicans, depending on which party is in control, commonly cram opponents into as few districts as possible, limiting their voting power, or spread them across several districts so that there is no way these voters can impact an election. Insiders call the strategies used to dilute voting strength, packing and cracking.
But that’s old school.
Legislators now use another method that puts ardent supporters in the same district with a slightly smaller number of ardent opponents. The technique, called matching, effectively neutralizes the opposition, according to a Harvard University study by Drs. John N. Friedman and Richard T. Holden, two economists studying the decline of competitive elections. Their report, released last spring, details the effects of matching and other redistricting strategies. According to the study, the practice of matching is having a significant negative effect on minority representation. National statistics show that more than 90 percent of incumbents return to office, and only five to 10 lose their seat each election cycle. The new “matching strategy” is making it even more likely that politicians can choose their voters instead of the other way around. “It’s quite a novel idea,” says Holden, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But the concern here is that using a tactic like this, which may be more efficient than the pack and crack strategy, might further reduce minority representation.”
The practice, ironically, took root 40 years ago, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The landmark civil rights legislation was created to overcome a legacy of poll taxes, Whites-only primaries and literacy tests, especially in Southern states. But it wasn’t long before its foes began designing ways around it.
Lawmakers and scholars agree that politics has changed in two fundamental ways since the authorization of the Voting Rights Act: Blacks exercise their voting power and hold political office in great numbers, and Republicans, with almost no Black support, are the dominant party both nationally and in the South.
The two aren’t unrelated. Republican gains came partly through redrawing political boundaries and packing as many African-Americans into as few districts as possible in the early 1990s. The plan increased the number of Black representatives in Congress but bolstered GOP gains in the surrounding districts.
Democratic strategist Matt Angle credits the practice with nearly doubling the number of Black and Hispanic representatives elected to Congress in the past decade. But the boost has come at his party’s peril. He calls it “the unholy alliance.”
“Democrats are scared to death to deal honestly with issues in respect to race,” says Angle, a former congressional aide and founder of the Lonestar Project, a political action committee that monitors Republican activities. “White and Black Democrats couldn’t figure out how to work together, and that allowed Republicans to come in and pack districts. They’re still doing it, and that’s going to kill us.
“When minority voters really start to be effective at the polls, Republicans change the rules and move the ball,” Angle says. “It’s a cynical view of the law to lessen the impact of minority voters. This isn’t a matter of racism, it’s about power. It’s how power protects power.”
Spencer A. Overton, a law professor at George Washington University who specializes in voting rights and who served on the Jimmy Carter-James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, says political elites from both parties are harming voters of all persuasions.
“Our voting rights are under attack by incumbent politicians of both parties who manipulate rules in order to win elections,” says Overton. “These rules include redistricting, they also include English-only ballots, antiquated voting machines, photo identification and a whole host of other devices.” Overton’s recently released book, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, examines modern methods of voter disenfranchisement.
This July, the U.S. Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, but the statute’s survival is still in jeopardy. By federal law, Texas must get permission to change any of its election rules because of its history of minority voter disenfranchisement. But a small district in northwest Austin filed suit against the U.S. Department of Justice last month, claiming that a key provision in the renewed act is unconstitutional.
U.S. Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., one of the chief architects of the renewed legislation, says the Voting Rights Act has been legally challenged almost every year since its inception. This is no different, he says.
The revised law seeks to restore the Voting Rights Act to its original strength. Many supporters say it has been weakened over the years by U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding redistricting. While some Republicans, primarily from Southern states, sought to “reform” the new bill, other Republicans joined forces with Black leaders to assure its passage.
As long as White citizens refuse to vote for candidates of other races and ethnicities, districts that ensure Blacks and Hispanics will elect candidates of their choice are needed, advocates say. That’s why Black leaders are aligning themselves with Republicans, says Kimberly Perkins, an assistant general counsel for the NAACP who specializes in redistricting and voting rights.
“Republicans have been our friends in some respects by creating majority minority districts,” she says. “On the other hand, Democrats tend to bring more of our issues to the table. I don’t know who’s got it right, and I don’t know that we’ve come up with the perfect plan. I do know that minority interests are being traded off. I’m just not sure how we stop it.”
Crossing the Line This fall’s mid-term elections are important to watch in part because they will help set the stage for redistricting battles to come in 2011, says Dr. Michael P. McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
“Whoever controls the state legislature or key positions in state government controls the political landscape for the entire decade,” he says. “Partisan battles in the redistricting war start right now. Republicans get it. Democrats are just starting to get it.”
In the past, legislators drew their maps using markers, paper maps and adding machines, but the process was time consuming and often inaccurate. Today, computer consultants hired by politicians know exactly where minority voters live, says Dr. Mark J. Salling, an expert in election demographics with the Center for Election Integrity at Cleveland State University. With the click of a mouse, politicians can move lines on computer screens and create the perfect proportion of Black, White or Hispanic voting blocs to achieve a pre-determined outcome, he says.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, politicians and their consultants combined U.S. Census tracts to produce the racial makeup they wanted for a district, Salling says. “Now they can build districts household by household by clicking on neighborhood blocks and finding out how many registered voters live there, the race of the people inside each house and how each of them voted in the last three elections.”
With that information in hand, legislators can now predict how each household is going to vote, Salling says, “and draw the line exactly the way the politician wants it.”
Texas, where Davis lives, isn’t the worst offender of manipulating boundary lines; it’s just gotten the most attention lately. The efforts of Republicans to secure more seats in Congress by redrawing boundaries led protesting Democrats to flee to Oklahoma to avoid ratifying the new districts. U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, one of the plan’s chief architects, was forced to give up his position as Speaker of the House, and eventually his seat in Congress, after being indicted for allegedly violating campaign finance laws in a fund-raising scheme that was part of his redistricting plot.
Political leaders in other states have fought similar battles. In California, for example, Democrats drew lines that protected their incumbents, much to the chagrin of activists who thought the surge in the Hispanic population presented a chance to draw new lines to boost Hispanic representation. Republicans challenged the new map, but the state Supreme Court decided it would stand. Ohio Republican strategist Jim Tilling recalls trying to draw fair boundary lines for his state, but GOP leaders — pressured by the state NAACP — forced him to pack Black voters into a district around Cleveland. Democrats sued, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the Republicans. “It helped that I went before the court with members of the NAACP standing next to me. That way, no one could say the map violated minority voting rights,” Tilling says.
Creative line drawing in Franklin County, Ohio, is another example, Tilling says. Columbus, the county seat and the state capital, is led by a Black Democratic mayor. The area is also where Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry beat George W. Bush by almost 50,000 votes in the 2004 presidential election. But the districts for the congressional seats are drawn in such a way that Republicans hold all three of the county’s seats in the U.S. House.
According to Friedman and Holden’s study, the most gerrymandered maps in the country can be found in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Last fall, Ohio Democrats, with the exception of several African-American leaders, fought to change the way political lines are drawn in their state. That effort was successfully beaten back by Republicans. But with abysmal GOP poll numbers suggesting that Democrats may sweep back into power, leaders from both parties are scrambling to change their respective tunes.
“When one political party is about to lose some power, fairness all of a sudden becomes a great value,” says Dr. John C. Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “If Republicans have suddenly realized the importance of fairness, Democrats have just as suddenly rediscovered the value of partisanship.”
Davis hasn’t felt that sense of fairness in her redrawn district in Texas. The political priorities in her Black, teetering middle-class neighborhood focus largely on crime, jobs and economic development. But her new Republican congressman, Michael C. Burgess, acknowledges that the mostly White and rural constituents that make up his base are more concerned about immigration and roads. He backs President Bush’s 2007 proposed budget, which cuts spending on higher education and Medicare — issues that have received strong support in the Black community. Before the redesign, Burgess’ district was fairly compact. Now, it stretches 100 miles, from east Ft. Worth to the Oklahoma border. And as the district size has grown, the voting strength of Davis’ neighborhood has dwindled.
“We don’t have any interests in common,” she says of Burgess. “He doesn’t represent me. Rather than work to convert us, they just carved us out like we were nobodies.”
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