Redistricting for Inclusive Democracy

By Penda Hair

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 4-6

As a direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, U.S. democracy is more inclusive now than at any time in its history. As our nation faces the next round of redistricting and celebrates the 35th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is important to mark this progress. In 1965, no African American represented any Southern state in Congress. In Congress today, thirteen African Americans represent the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The ability of Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans, Native Americans, and other minorites to elect representatives of their choice also has increased significantly. These improvements did not come about voluntarily, but derive largely from enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and particularly from the Act's pressure on jurisdictions to create single-member districts which provide minority constituencies an equal chance to elect their preferred candidates.

Much of the progress in minority representation has occurred very recently and its hold is quite fragile. The Voting Rights Act remains a vital tool wherever racially polarized voting or other barriers prevent racial and ethnic minorities from exercising a full and equal political voice.

The process of redistricting federal, state, and local voting districts usually is conducted in the year following the census, when new census data becomes available. The next round will commence in the spring of 2001.

The creation of fair districting plans is essential to democracy. Where these lines are drawn determines which residents are grouped together for electing representatives. How these lines are drawn determines which voters are able to elect representatives of their choice. In addition to determining who is elected to office, the redistricting process fundamentally affects the basic civic act of self-governance. Citizens who lack even a chance to elect candidates of their choice may opt out not only from the individual act of voting, but also from the broader process of civic participation.

The voting rights field and population figures have changed dramatically in the past decade, necessitating shifts in strategies to protect minority populations and redistribution of existing populations among the states will create very challenging multi-ethnic settings in many areas. While the Voting Rights Act still provides legal protection from districting plans that unjustly split minority communities, pack minority residents into super-majority districts, or otherwise dilute minority voting strength, the legal protections have been weakened by the Supreme Court's Shaw v. Reno line of cases. The upcoming round of redistricting and the events that will follow are going to take place in an environment created by a backlash against the political gains of minorities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act is under attack in the courts and in public opinion. The values underlying the passage of the Act--an equal opportunity to vote and elect representatives, true self-governance, and a participatory democracy--are at risk of being lost or forgotten.

From the 2000 Census through the 2007 decision on renewing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, there is an opportunity to address the contentiousness surrounding the Voting Rights Act and strengthen the values of an inclusive democracy. The new focus in the courts on drawing districts based on documented "communities of interest" offers an opportunity to build bridges across racial and ethnic lines.

In a recently-released report based upon more than seventy interviews with voting rights activists, lawyers, scholars, and community leaders, the Advancement Project summarizes the following strategies to help ensure that minorities have a fair chance to elect their representatives of choice.

Organize

Community involvement builds local knowledge which will help construct fair districts for minority voters, that represent common interests, local geography, and other factors not based on race. It will be necessary for communities of common interest to be informed, organized, and ready to effectively deal with situations where some redistricters will be openly hostile to the idea of protecting voting rights for everyone.

Grassroots organizations should focus attention on those drawing the district lines--in most circumstances the state legislature and local governing bodies. It will be critical for residents to:

  • Show up in large numbers at and participate in redistricting meetings, hearings, or events held by local districting officials
  • Present alternative districting plans and be prepared to offer comments on those presented by others
  • Negotiate the drawing of district lines effectively
  • Use the media and other forms of advocacy to make

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    the case for plans that are fair
  • Work with districting officials and their staff members to influence the process.

Work Across Racial Lines

Redistricting and the creation and preservation of minority opportunity districts has the potential to be a "wedge" issue, dividing members of different racial groups. The need for multiracial cooperation and coalition building is an important part of the fight for fair minority representation.

The Latino population has grown in numbers and political maturity, and is poised to make greater claims for equal representation. On a smaller scale, growth is occurring among Asian Pacific American population. Balancing these different cultures and needs will intensify the complexity of redrawing district lines.

Building a solid multiracial coalition requires acknowledging the difficult issues. Multiracial cooperation can occur if attention is paid to the real causes of unfairness and the need to develop joint strategies. Communities must recognize the issues they have in common, but common interests cannot simply be assumed and conflicting interests cannot be ignored. Real cross-racial communication must occur, bringing data and the lived experiences of each group's members to the table. Such dialogue takes time and should be started immediately, so that a level of trust can be developed before the tough issues can be resolved.

Historically, redistricting has been framed as a winner- takes-all pursuit. However, the focus should remain on the critical issue: ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their race, have an equal opportunity to participate and elect candidates of their choice.

Race and Districting

Race can be considered in drawing district lines. Majority-minority districts are still allowed. In the aftermath of cases striking down majority-minority districts, communities need to be clear on the rules for drawing lines.

When race is used without consideration of other common interests of constituents, the districts are more likely to be challenged. The safest way to use race in redrawing district lines is to use it as one of many rather than as the most significant factor. Other factors can include:

  • Compactness (districts should not be too stretched out or distorted in shape)
  • Contiguity (no disconnected segments)
  • Political subdivisions (for instance, county lines)
  • Communities of interests
  • Incumbency protection (not drawing lines to make it harder for current office-holders to win re-election).

Redistricters should take into account factors other than race to avoid drawing districts that either will be


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easily challenged or easily overturned. Districts that represent community interest among residents are more easily defended, even if the district is predominantly made up of one racial group. A key question under the Supreme Court's Shaw doctrine is whether a genuine community of interests exists or whether race is being used to assume common interests.

While "community of interests" has not been clearly defined in the case law or in social science literature, districts should strive to include residents with similar income and education levels, church memberships, civic-social organizations, common transportation issues, and common economic interests (e.g. agricultural versus industrial areas or rural versus metropolitan areas).

The Supreme Court has overturned some minority opportunity districts, partially based on the statements of the individuals who redrew the district lines. For example, a plan for Georgia redistricting called "Max Black" was interpreted as a signal that race was predominant.

The name of a proposed redistricting plan should represent goals of unity or democracy--giving minorities a fair chance to electing officials of their choice. Names like "Opportunity Plan" or "Unity Plan" tell the story better.

Using the Media

Strategic and coordinated campaigns to educate the public and the media about the foundations of the Voting Rights Act and the importance of a representative democracy are essential. These efforts help create broad public support for fair districting plans.

During 2001, the Advancement Project plans a communications initiative to reconnect the goal of minority representation to the principles of democracy. To be successful, such a campaign to recapture the moral high ground will require voting rights supporters to join together on the messages and images that communicate the values of minority representation and "minority opportunity districts." We must use these messages consistently in speeches, interviews, and other outreach activities. The Advancement Project will work jointly in this effort with the Communications Consortium, a public interest media center with expertise in media and public education campaigns. By improving public understanding of the history of the Voting Rights Act, and the continuing need for its protection, we have the opportunity to shape the electoral landscape in which public policy decisions are made.

Penda Hair is co-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C., a public policy advocacy organization and resource center devoted to finding, creating, and promoting innovative and effective strategies to advance racial and social justice.