Law in Contemporary Society

Do Majority Minority Districts Help or Hurt?

-- By PaulSmith - 26 Feb 2010


The 1965 Voting Rights Act significantly increased the number of minorities in elected office. The act required the creation of districts with minority communities large enough to elect a politician of their choice. Initially, low minority turnout and whites’ aversion to minority candidates required that districts have super-majority minority populations in order to achieve this goal. Minority populations upwards of 60% were often necessary. However, that is often no longer the case today, especially for African American communities. African American registration and turnout has increased significantly since the sixties. Additionally, whites are increasingly willing to “cross-over” and support a minority candidate for office. As such, African-American communities are often able to elect their candidate of choice with significantly less than even 50% of a district’s population. The fact that these majority-influenced districts can exist undoubtedly demonstrates a positive shift in society. However, these shifts create a new situation in which minorities’ political interests may be injured by strict adherence to traditional majority-minority standards.

Decreasing Political Influence?

Mandating anti-minority gerrymandering

A common gerrymandering technique is packing all of your political opponents into one district, so that all surrounding districts favor your own interests. Mandating that certain districts contain high percentages of minority voters potentially requires this to occur against minority communities. While the community’s ability to elect its candidate of choice in that one district is nearly guaranteed, every surrounding district has significantly fewer minority voters than it otherwise would. The community’s political concerns are less likely to be voiced in these surrounding districts. This arrangement potentially leaves the community with a few very safe legislators at the expense of their overall influence in the legislative body. As minority communities are increasingly able to elect their candidate of choice with a smaller portion of the population, many minority votes are in effect “wasted.” The face of their representation is guaranteed, but the actual impact of their political voice is handicapped.

Decreasing incentives for interracial coalition building

In many areas, majority voters are increasingly willing to support minority candidates. However, packing minority voters into extremely safe districts reduces the drive for further interracial cooperation. On the other hand, electing minority politicians from minority-influenced districts requires some degree of interracial coalition building. In the short term, these coalitions may provide the minority community a stronger voice with the majority community even in districts which are not necessarily minority-influenced. In the long term, making interracial coalition building the norm could further increase majority voters’ willingness to support the minority community’s interests.

Shifting the focus to primary elections

Combining heavily minority districts with increased majority cross-over support often creates districts with extreme political supermajorities. A political candidate from such a district is often guaranteed success in the general election, and is less likely to expend resources on that election. Voters from these districts will still receive attention from other candidates. However, voter turnout in more competitive districts with fewer minorities will potentially be the focus of a greater number of campaigns. This could serve to depress relative minority turnout in the general election, to the detriment of sympathetic candidates running for other offices. The incredible safety of a minority’s district representative may be at the expense of better representation from other officials across the ticket.

The Supreme Court Weighs in

“Minority Influence” districts may be OK.

The Supreme Court recently acknowledged that changing circumstances may justify a relaxation of requirements for majority-minority districts. In some situations, the court established that a state may choose a districting scheme focusing on maximizing substantive representation through minority-influenced districts, as opposed to one focused strictly on maintaining majority-minority districts.

Such districts lack significant VRA protections

Majority-minority districts are protected from local or state laws which dilute the effectiveness of the minority community’s political influence. However, after recognizing the validity of minority-influenced districts, the Supreme Court denied these districts the same protections from potentially discriminatory local or state laws. While acknowledging that many minority communities can now effectively elect their preferred candidate with less than 50% of the population, and allowing schemes based on such districts to dilute the strength of majority-minority districts, the court at the same time tied the hands of any state attempting to create a meaningful districting scheme based on increasing substantive minority influence.

Looser standards may negatively impact other minorities

By focusing on the gains made by African American communities, the court potentially weakens the electoral protections for other minority groups. It took decades for African Americans to reach the degree of political influence they maintain today. Some of this progress is likely attributable to the strict protections granted to minority communities under the voting rights act. However, other minority communities may not have reached a comparable level of political acceptance among majority voters. Allowing states to ‘choose’ a strategy with much looser redistricting requirements for other minority groups may prevent these groups from maintaining their electoral significance.

The Worst of Both Worlds?

While appearing to mitigate the negative effects of strictly applied majority-minority requirements, the Supreme Court seems to grant states a losing choice. On one hand is the traditional strict requirement, which potentially sacrifices a community’s political impact for the security of a few elected officials. On the other is a broader scheme of “minority-influence” districts, which denies minority communities the same flexibility and protections they would receive in a strictly majority-minority scheme.

What we’re left with seems to illustrate Arnold’s view of democracy in the broadest sense. With more ambiguously defined “minority influenced” schemes, we’re left with a system of ideals which, by definition, is denied the means to be practically implemented. With traditional majority-minority construction, we have a system which ensures that minority communities will always have multiple faces they can point to as representing their interests in government, though the community is in fact limited in the substantive representation they receive. It serves as a reassuring image of representation with limited real-world impact on actual representation.

This essay treats the matter as though the Supreme Court decides these questions free of any statutory scheme, which is of course not the case. The statute exists, and its provisions, both concerning dilution under section 2 and with respect to districting, have consequences. The essay treats "minorities" as the intended beneficiaries of the statute, but that's only in part true. Some of the provisions of the statute are specific to the history of disfranchisement of particular groups.

Most importantly, the essay treats the Voting Rights Act's districting philosophy as intended to benefit black voters. This is only in part true. The Republican Party's support for the Act, from 1965 to the 1982 extensions in particular, was based on the recognition that "packing and cracking" under the Act could be used to break up one-party Democratic control of the South, turning the Republicans into an eventually-dominant White People's Party. This was the content of Richard Nixon's famous "Southern Strategy," and of the political managers (Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) behind the Bush dynasty. But it was also substantially assisted by the restructuring mediated by the provisions and implementation of the Voting Rights Act, as the Act's leading Republican supporter in the later period, Bob Dole, perfectly understood.

Now, as changing demographics and political landscape (but not, so far as can be seen, a substantial lessening of racially-polarized voting in the relevant parts of the US) make it necessary for Democrats to change their strategy for contesting Republican dominance in the South, the Supreme Court is dominated by partisan Republican appointees who wish to use the Act in the fashion contemplated by its Republican political architects, rather than by its Democratic ones. The complicating cross-cutting cleavages in the multi-national society now in its last few decades of white majority rule make that task easier.

This draft is a very good start. Some attention to the larger context, in revision, will be helpful.


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r3 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:23 - IanSullivan
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