As Redistricting Begins, Racial Gerrymandering Follows Black Migration

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Over at Washington Post's The Fix, Aaron Blake takes a thorough look at what the recent pattern of black migration to the suburbs means for congressional redistricting. With Republicans now controlling most state legislatures, the GOP has the luxury of steering the process. That likely means packing newly-distributed black voters into strategically drawn borders, siphoning them from swing districts that would become more solidly Republican as a result.

Obviously, there are big implications for the next decade of elections. In post-census years, it's good to be the king.

For a preview, Blake holds up the example of Louisiana, the first state in the country to finish its redistricting process in 2011:

Outmigration from Hurricane Katrina dispersed black voters from New Orleans all over Louisiana (and also into Texas and Mississippi). So while Rep. Cedric Richmond’s (D-La.) New Orleans district lost more black voters than any other district in the country – nearly 120,000 – all the states’ others districts gained black voters. That meant his district needed to be stretched to Baton Rouge in order to pick up black voters and keep a semblance of its old black majority.

Rather than have their districts absorb minority voters, usually more liberal, the Louisiana GOP has simply boxed them out. It's business as usual, but business as usual seems to be at odds with representative democracy. "One person, one vote" is the mantra of American elections. Racial gerrymandering, however, adjusts what we might call the value of a minority's vote. It creates artificial constituencies that exist only to reinforce a status quo in one place and make change more likely in another.

Which prompts the question: how can this this be legal?

And not only is it legal; it's required, sort of. The Voting Rights Act (VRA), passed in 1965, outlawed discriminatory voting practices, but also presented initiatives to enfranchise black voters. At the time, the Justice Department's thinking was that forcing the creation of "minority majority" districts was the best way to ensure that representatives of color would be elected to Congress. 

To that end, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires someone who thinks the minority vote is being diluted by electoral arrangements to go into court and make an argument—the Act's roundabout way of putting pressure on the state to avoid a slow, costly lawsuit that would delay elections. Hence, Blake's point that, while also serving a political purpose, Rep. Richmond's district "needed to be stretched" in order to "keep a semblance of its old black majority."

But it's not 1965 anymore. One could argue that, with the nation's ballooning minority population—and a black president, no less—we should change our definition of what it means to "dilute" the black vote.

Consider, for example, how much a vote cast for Andrew Cuomo last fall really mattered in light of his landslide victory. Thousands of registered New York Democrats could have packed up and moved to a swing state instead of spending their vote on a candidate that was almost certain to win. Something similar could be said about districts drawn to get minority representatives into Congress. Could "excess" black voters be placed in a district where they'll have more of an impact? Does a district really need to be 80 percent black to elect a black official? Could it get by with only 55 percent?

Read those last two sentences again. The utility of minority majority districts was based on the assumption that black voters are the only ones who will vote for black candidates, and white voters are the only ones who will vote for white candidates. In 1965, this was pretty accurate. Now, one might call it offensive.

That's not the only change in the landscape. The Voting Rights Act and its prescription for minority majority districts, once a boon for Democrats, is now more helpful for Republicans. 

However, the law enjoys bipartisan support; it's precarious, railing against civil rights legislation. And while other parts of the VRA continue to serve much-needed purposes, Aaron Blake notes that, referring to its impact on redistricting, "Some even contend that the Voting Rights Act has outlived its usefulness in this regard."

Last renewed in 2006, all sections of the VRA are set to remain law until 2031—eleven years before whites are expected to become an American minority. When he signed the extension, President George W. Bush said, "Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy."

In cases like Louisiana, though, it sure looks like a community is being marginalized.