Policy Debate: You Decide

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Electoral Redistricting and Race

The process of redrawing election districts to take account of population shifts is both necessary and controversial. America’s two major political parties have always vied to obtain political advantage through redistricting in the hope that redrawn district lines will help their candidates or hurt the opposing candidates. Yet redistricting has also been used as a weapon to minimize the electoral influence of selected groups, especially African Americans, a process many consider an undemocratic denial of equality. To remedy this problem, Congress amended the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 1982 to compel states with significant African American and Latino populations to redraw district lines in such a way as to make more likely the election of representatives from these groups. This redistricting was carried out in thirteen states after the 1990 census, and it produced the desired effect. Before the 1990 reapportionment, the House of Representatives had a record-high twenty-five African American members (5.7 percent of members). After the reapportionment, which included the creation of districts having black majorities, thirty-nine African Americans were elected (9 percent of the House); Latino representatives increased from ten to seventeen. Yet many of these race-based reapportionment schemes were challenged in court.

Supporters of race-based redistricting argue that such drastic measures are necessary to overcome traditional white dominance. Southern blacks, in particular, traditionally have been frozen out of public office, since most American elections follow the winner-take-all system, meaning that election districts with substantial nonwhite populations could always be outvoted by a white majority. Indeed, studies have shown that race matters to voters. In a study from the 1980s, more than 80 percent of white North Carolina voters reported that they would not vote for an African American candidate, even if there was no other choice on the ballot. North Carolina did not elect an African American to Congress in the twentieth century until after the 1990 reapportionment, despite the fact that between one-fifth and one-third of the state’s population was black.

Although race-based redistricting has produced some odd-shaped congressional districts, it not only increased the number of nonwhite representatives in Congress but also increased their political voice and clout. This larger number of representatives has exerted more influence over national policy making in such areas as crime and gun control. It also has increased the pool of potential office seekers. The persistence of racism, and the resistance of institutions to change, has made such “minority” districts necessary.

Critics have argued that race-based redistricting is nothing more than racial gerrymandering and that it perpetuates the very problem it claims to solve. Although the number of minority representatives in Congress has increased, race-based reapportionment has also purged surrounding districts of nonwhite voters, transforming many of these districts from racially and politically competitive to uniformly white and Republican, a fact reflected in the shift of twelve seats to Republican candidates in the thirteen states where these changes took place (because of the shifting of Democratic-voting blacks from these formerly competitive districts). Thus, black voters have been walled off from more-conservative white voters.

The shoestring shape of many of these districts—some portions of some districts are no wider than an interstate highway—reveals their blatant gerrymandering. Even though the purpose of providing more representation for African Americans and Latinos may be praiseworthy, the method violates the principle of equal protection, as the Supreme Court has noted in recent decisions. Winner-take-all elections do often disguise the preferences of minority groups, but the remedy is stronger electoral competition and greater pressure from constituent groups. According to this view, reapportionment based on race is unacceptable, regardless of which race benefits.

SOURCES: Gary Cox and Jonathan Katz, Elbridge Gerry’s Salamander: The Electoral Consequences of the Reapportionment Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Mark Monmonier, Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

1.
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What are the advantages of using race and ethnicity as criteria for drawing legislative district boundaries? What are the disadvantages?
2.
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Should states be allowed to use race and ethnicity as criteria for drawing legislative district boundaries? Why or why not?
3.
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Is the race or ethnicity of a member of Congress important to the goal of popular representation? Why or why not?
4.
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What are some of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning race and districting? How has the Court’s position changed over time?

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