Voter Participation Is Now the Challenge

By Alex Willingham

Vol. 9, No. 2, 1987, pp. 21-24

Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, black voter participation has improved dramatically, often operating as an integral part of winning coalitions. However, under-registration and low voter turnout continue to handicap the black population in the South. This is the uncomfortable fact behind claims of an influential black vote made after the Jesse Jackson campaign in the 1984 presidential primaries and again after the 1986 elections. Such claims were fueled by certain black political leaders and also by conservative whites smarting over the defeat of incumbent Southern senators who failed to attract black votes in 1986. Both groups have a special interest in exaggerating the importance of the black vote. But the reality is that blacks in the South, even some in key jurisdictions, are neither registering nor voting in respectable numbers.

A case in point is the 1986 campaign in Georgia's Fifth Congressional district where John Lewis won election over Julian Bond. The district is centered in Atlanta and includes black voters with an active history of participation. Both Bond and Lewis are well-known veterans of the civil rights movement and voter registration work. For the heated run-off between them less than sixty percent of the eligible blacks in Fulton county (the bulk of the district) were registered to vote, and barely more than a third actually cast ballots. Limited registration and turnout did not prevent the election of a black Congressman there, but only because court-ordered redistricting provided a large black majority; in a district with the same black registration and turnout, but with a smaller black majority, a viable white candidate might have beaten Bond or Lewis.

In the Second Congressional district in Mississippi, black citizens--though a majority--were unable in 1982 and 1984 to elect a U. S. Congressman. In 1986 when the district elected Mike Espy to become Mississippi's only black congressman, it was considered an upset although he was elected over a white in a district with 57 percent black population. Despite the large percentage of blacks in the South, Lewis and Espy will serve with just two other black colleagues among the 138 Southerners in the 100th Congress.

In a real sense, these are protected victories, won through the reapportionment process. And reapportionment, the most important election reform strategy of recent years, has been so successful it is now nearly exhausted as a remedy. The single-member district is now widely used throughout the South. From courthouse to statehouse,


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thousands of at-large elective offices once unattainable to minority candidates have been transformed into districts which give ample expression to black voting choices and, due to segregated housing patterns, just about assure election of black candidates.

The momentum for districting remains strong. The Alabama legislature has enacted local courtesy laws enabling a cluster of Black Belt counties to convert to singlemember districts for the election of county governing bodies and school boards. Another l70 Alabama jurisdictions may convert to single-member districts under terms of a pending lawsuit. In Mississippi all county supervisors are elected from single-member districts. Even Southern legislatures, the bodies responsible for reapportionment, are elected from single-member districts in eight of the Southern states; only a few multi-member districts remain in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Generally, the federal courts have upheld single-member districting as one effective remedy for electoral discrimination even as legislative and administrative policies have moved in regressive directions. In Thornburg v. Gingles, a 1986 decision on North Carolina's legislative reapportionment, the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed several at-large features of a districting plan and specifically emphasized that the election of racial minorities should be considered a critical factor in evaluating election systems. The Thornburg decision has been considered pivotal because the Reagan Administration entered the case and made a special argument, rejected by the Court, that would have restricted the reach of reapportionment law.

Mere conversion to single-member districts does not settle the issue of discrimination in elections. The problem is illustrated in cases such as that of the Mississippi county supervisors where, despite single-member districts, blacks account for only 38 of the state's 410 supervisory positions although blacks are a substantially larger percentage of the state's population. A similar pattern holds among the Southern state legislatures. Even with the large-scale conversion to single-member legislative districts, for example, blacks would have to more than double their present number of state legislative seats merely to match their numbers in the region's population. As single-member districts come more into use, a remaining issue--and one likely to dominate the 1990 round of reapportionment--is how to draw districts so as to create effective minority constituencies.

Recent reforms have been based on certain key assumptions which justify the priority given to the reapportion-


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ment strategy: that Southern state voting policies would be retrogressive, that blacks would under-participate relative to whites, that cross-racial coalitions would be unlikely, and that minorities would not be elected to single executive and state wide offices. These assumptions can now be reviewed.

Southern state policies on voter participation, traditionally hostile to the black voter, have been improving. Flexible voter registration hours, satellite registration sites and deputy registrars are now more common. Election officials in several states publicly and systematically encourage voter registration.

While barriers to voting have diminished, differential rates of voter participation continue. And when this is combined with white racial bloc voting the results could be an artificial constraint on the political development that will come to the region. In the past, allowance has been made for underparticipation by using the redistricting process to draw black districts with extraordinary majorities. This practice has been effective in the short-run but has serious drawbacks as a long-run tactic. Such compensatory districting may encourage packing, a new wrinkle in racial gerrymandering which could be a threat remaining long after the classic vote dilution techniques--including at large voting--have been swept away.

One danger is that ostensibly black-controlled districts may be intentionally drawn where powerful white factions continue to control political office. For example, by putting most of the 30 percent black population of a given county in a single almost exclusively black district, blacks might elect one of five commissioners, who would consistently be on the losing end of 4-1 commission decisions. The remaining blacks in the county might be split among several majority white districts where they compete with a dominant voting bloc and have no ability to influence decisions. A perception of representation might develop, among both blacks and whites, which reduces the minority community to its "own" elected officials. This result would lead to disillusionment as surely as the failure of blacks to win offices in districts with only slight black majorities.

Recent reforms have been based on a pessimistic assumption about the prospects of cross-racial voter coalitions. The reality of white racial bloc voting, particularly when combined with the differential rates of participation, is a strong factor in assessing the racial impact of election mechanics. But voter coalitions are critical to future advances. The building of such coalitions will depend, in large measure, on racial attitudes of white voters, but a key ingredient will be maximization of the voting potential of the minority population.

Furthermore, single-member redistricting reforms do not reach certain levels. They have brought mixed results in Congressional races; they are ineffective in single executive and state-wide offices. Except for the special case of judges, only one black holds a state-wide elected office in the South.

The significance of voter registration and education are clear. Yet there is growing doubt that current efforts and organizations will be capable of meeting the challenge. The Voter Education Project (VEP), historically responsible for increasing black voter participation in the region is facing major problems. For several years now it has been in serious financial, organizational and structural disarray. Even before its current troubles, the political dynamics in the region were presenting an increasingly difficult challenge to voter registration efforts.

The crisis at VEP was not entirely caused by internal factors. It grew out of two things. First there was the overall shift in voting rights efforts from community organizing to formal litigation, a shift that came to dominate voting rights strategy in VEP's Deep South territory. Second, there was a shift in the object of organizing from support for overall consensus candidates (often at the presidential level) to mobilization in the context of highly partisan local campaigns. Key elections sometimes feature competition among black candidates in majority-black single-member districts; at other times they consist of black incumbents unopposed for reelection.

In 1985, when the national philanthropic foundations issued the report criticizing VEP, the focus was on over allocation of money to administration as opposed to field work. But VEP, or any other organization doing effective voter participation work, will have to come to grips with the changing conditions of Southern politics and of the role of minority voters therein. Some dramatic efforts to address the issue have had little impact. In 1984 lawsuits were filed in several southern states seeking to compel state officials to affirmatively register voters. VEP itself shifted tactics and went to court over registration practices in Georgia.

But this overall effort has stalled and cannot be expected to bring results in the near future.

The Jackson Campaign and its Rainbow Coalition proposed a seductive way out of the voter participation dilemma--charismatic leadership based in black church organization. Whether that will have a long-run impact on minority voter participation is doubtful (there is some reason to believe that black church politics is an extension of the partisan pattern now emerging). In the short run the Jackson mobilization has not significantly expanded black voting and, indeed, Rainbow candidates have become one more element competing for support within the same restrictive franchise.

The Jackson method also places heavy emphasis on race in its mobilization drives. But conditions in the South today require an active voter to exercise the franchise in circumstances where such cues are not dependable guides because election choices are more matter-of-fact calculations. Powerful white factions seeking to realign Southern politics, and restrict bi-racial governance, encourage racial cueing by blacks as a strategy for delegitimation. Emphasis on the racial cue also invites counter mobilization by elevating this visible aspect of the candidate (or proposition) among Southern white voters a group not unaccustomed to making its election choices by such a standard. Depressed voter participation in the Southern black population remains despite the Rainbow Coalition suggesting the challenge for groups seeking an open and responsive political process.

Counting VEP, about fifteen organizations now conduct


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voter participation work in low-income and minority communities. Only two of these are based in the South, although half of them have operations somewhere in the region. The proliferation of voter registration groups has intensified competition over scarce dollars, local constituencies, and skilled organizers, without providing local capacity to respond to basic participation problems. In local communities, groups historically constituted for voter participation work now struggle without much assistance and are actively solicited by partisan factions.

Partisanship is a fact of life in the new Southern politics, posing difficult problems for traditional tactics. Partisanship will be exaggerated by the increase in black elected officials. Conclusions about the precise impact of partisanship are difficult given the rapid pace of change. However, certain features are clear. The new mobilization is not a strategy for empowerment. It is primarily effective in influencing the direction of the vote rather than the quality of participation or input beyond election day. It is beneficial insofar as such mobilization helps sustain some voter turnout. Partisan mobilization tends to be episodic and personality-driven. It seems to increase the role of money in elections. It is of limited impact in low-profile elections even when the issues being decided are vitally important to minorities.

Current levels of registration and turnout suggest that partisan mobilization is not a viable substitute for traditional voter registration work. It does not seem capable of addressing the legacy of discrimination or the sense of uncertainty about the efficacy of the vote that is behind minority under-participation. To leave the exercise of voting rights to partisan mobilization will mean that the historic struggle to enfranchise black Southerners will lose its potential as a democratizing force and become reduced to mere politics-as-usual.

What can be done? Nothing easily. Because philanthropy gives its funds to non-political groups, its predisposition favors litigation strategies which are safe from charges of partisan involvement. As we have seen, however, the benefits to be expected from litigation are diminishing and low voter participation among minorities may actually have begun to undercut the benefits of redistricting. Proponents of voter registration should avoid putting so many eggs in the litigation basket and return to providing support for organizational community-based work designed to register and vote the population. This is no simple matter. Persisting underparticipation and partisan domination of the electoral agenda raise difficult strategic problems for groups working to expand minority participation.

Improvements in official voting policies are still needed at both the state and federal levels. But formal changes in state policies are not a substitute for community-based organizational work. Any overall strategy will necessarily develop out of experiences in local communities--rather than top down. Targets of opportunity must be pursued by placing resources in places where there are realistic chances of making gains. A regional organization, in the tradition of VEP, could be pivotal in the process.

Above all some organization needs to plunge in to systematically collect and analyze information on what is happening in the aftermath of the recent reforms. Research associated with voting rights litigation provides some interesting illustrations about how to answer these questions. But the case-by-case nature of this work does not facilitate the systematic generalization needed now.

The Voting Rights Act, the federal courts, and an experienced bar remain in place to protect against wrongdoing by state officials, but the main line of defense against vote dilution is increasingly becoming that of informed citizens taking action in local communities. Strategies to promote full participation in Southern politics have varied over time as activists have struggled to overcome voting practices that were among the nation's most restrictive and discriminatory. Successful adjustments have resulted in significant change yielding a more open political process today. Another shift is necessary now if the historically disfranchised are to consolidate past gains and continue the march towards a just political system.

Political scientist Alex Willingham is research director of the Southern Regional Council.