Voting Rights—Failure of Commitment

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 16, No. 4, 1994, pp. 1-3

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the quiet revolution that the Act has brought to the South is apparent, but public consensus about the racial fairness measures the law provides is shamefully lacking.

Acting on challenges brought by white voters who allege no harm to themselves, recent Supreme Court decisions and a round of redistricting lawsuits threaten to undo the most effective means to date of providing representation for African American and Latino voters who have endured a history of exclusion.

Believing that their 1994 election victory confirms white voter sentiment against race-based remedies, Republicans in Congress intend to implement policy initiatives that will undermine the movement toward racial equity. They started by eliminating the funding of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Another target is "Motor Voter." Two bills have been introduced to repeal the 1993 National Voter Registration Act; one by Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) and another by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Seven states, including three of the most populous—California, Illinois and Pennsylvania—have failed to implement the law. Many of the states which implemented the law on schedule on January 1, 1995, failed to fully enact registration at public service agencies, a shortcoming which will disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.

Since 1965, many white Americans have expressed support for the broad principle of racial fairness, but continue to resist the practical steps necessary to achieve it. The racial chasm is nowhere more apparent than in


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the debate about voting.

Witness the blame numerous commentators have placed on redistricting-specifically the creation of "majority minority" districts—for the Republican takeover of Congress. Scapegoating minority voters for Democratic losses is worse than wrong. This inaccurate view not only undermines support for the Voting Rights Act, it prevents a clear analysis of the Democrats' reversal of fortunes.

Setting the record straight are two studies, one by Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at American University, and the other by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). As Lichtman noted in a December 7, 1994, essay in the New York Times, "Democrats actually fared a bit better in the nine states with new black districts [Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia] than in the 41 states with no such districts."

Democratic losses were worse in the U.S. Senate and in state governorships, for which voting is at-large and redistricting obviously plays no role, than in Congress, notes Lichtman. "The Democrats lost 36 percent of previously held Senate seats and about half of the governorships that were up for election in 1994."

To boot, "even if the Democrats had retained every one of the House seats lost in the nine states that had new majority black districts-in complete opposition to the nationwide Republican surge—the Republicans still would have gained control of the House in 1994."

The LDF report examines in detail the six districts lost by Democrats in 1994 in Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina, concluding that "the Voting Rights Act helped save Democratic seats in Mississippi and Georgia, as well as in other states." Comparing vote totals and the proportion of black population in the districts at stake with those in surrounding districts, the LDF's analysis shows that had the African American population been spread among the two Democratic districts in northern Mississippi, the Democratic party probably would have lost both districts. The same is true in Georgia. "If the African American population had been spread among all seven Democratic seats in central and eastern Georgia instead of being concentrated .... the Democratic party could well have lost all of the districts."

While all the long-term trends leading to the Republican takeover of Congress are still being analyzed, one fact is clear: Republicans organized and got out their vote. In mobilizing the surburban white male voters that provided the core of their support, Republican strategists and Christian Coalition allies relied not on a sea change in attitudes, but on exploiting patterns and resentments that have persisted for decades. "Not since 1964—not since Lyndon Johnson—have the majority of white people voted


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with the majority of people of color," commented civil rights activist Anne Braden at the SRC anniversary meeting November 19.

The Republican animus is not directed just at the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but at undoing policies that extend back to the New Deal. The goal, says Newt Gingrich ally Vin Weber, is "replacing a sixty-year-old framework."

The nature of the "framework" that government will provide is at the center of national debate. If civil rights legislation is to be preserved—let alone expanded upon—within that framework, the key tasks in voting rights are at least threefold: defend the gains brought about by the Voting Rights Act; explore voting alternatives that grant full participation to minority voters still unrepresented; and change underlying attitudes that lead to white racial bloc voting, reengaging the battle for hearts and minds of white Americans.


Defend the Gains


Any strategy to defend the gains must understand that white bloc voting remains the major barrier to full democracy and that most of the increase in black officeholding is due to singlemember districts where black voters are in the majority. In a too-little-noticed but very important book published in 1994, Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman convened a host of voting rights historians, lawyers, and advocates to document the Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Princeton University Press). In this careful state-by-state survey documenting the success of the Act, Quiet Revolution recounts barriers both deliberately designed and not voluntarily changed. In most cases, as Davidson illustrates in his essay in this issue of Southern Changes [see page 4], single-member districts are the only effective tool for voters seeking to remedy a history of exclusion. Efforts to reject race-based remedies must be countered.

Likewise, the effort to repeal the Motor Voter law must be stopped. Full implementation, including at public service agencies, must be pressed in every state. Any effort to limit expansion of the electorate must be halted.


Explore Alternatives


Lani Guinier, once Bill Clinton's nominee to become assistant attorney general for civil rights, has begun to bring conversation on ways to remedy minority exclusion in situations that do not lend themselves to single-member districts. Alternative methods, already at work in some jurisdictions, can allow voters to spread their votes among different candidates (cumulative or limited voting) or rank candidates according to preference (preference voting). By such methods, representation can be won for voters from social groups who remain underrepresented under the current system where each candidate must get 50 percent plus one. Alternatives to exclusionary systems must be further explored and tested.


Change Attitudes


But no set of remedies will ultimately succeed if our underlying attitudes remain polarized—if we cannot prepare our hearts and minds for governing in a way that celebrates diversity—including in the privacy of the voting booth.

Writing in Southern Changes in 1992, Julian Bond observed that "many of us recall an understanding [during the 1960s] that the mission of white progressives was to work and organize against racism in white middle- and working-class constituencies. That effort obviously didn't get very far; the lack of success stemmed at least in part from lack of commitment."

Failure of commitment remains with us. To get at the root causes that make voting remedies necessary, to succeed at the most difficult business of shortening the distance from professed principle to implementation, to begin rooting out racial demagoguery from elections will require a great deal. It will demand thoughtful new approaches, safe harbors for discussion, careful strategies, determined organizing, and coalition building. Most of all, it will require deciding—as many did to get us this far—that we must act.