Voting Rights and the New Majorities

By Angelo Ancheta

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 17-18

The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped reshape the American electorate and led to dramatic increases in the number of elected officials of color, particularly in the South. The year 1965 also marked a major shift in American immigration policy: removing discriminatory national origin quotas from the law, and spurring significant growth in the number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America-a trend that continues today.

Because of voting rights protections, legislatures are more integrated than they were thirty years ago, and they are a better representation of the populations they were elected to serve. But shifting demographics, fueled largely by immigration, reveal that constituencies are changing as well. Los Angeles, for example, now has a population in which no single racial or ethnic group, including whites, commands a numerical majority.

The trends that are most prominent in California are occurring in areas throughout the country, and they raise challenging questions: How should political representation reflect the changing demographics? How should immigrant groups be incorporated into the political process? What will be the impact of population shifts on the next round of reapportionment and redistricting? Are there risks to minority incumbents? What are the possibilities for coalition building among minority groups? What are the dangers of intergroup competition? And how does the law, including the Voting Rights Act, deal with all of these changes?

Cities and counties all over the U.S. are seeing the growth of immigrant populations which are developing into significant voting blocs. For example, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the year 1999, less than one quarter of Florida's Miami-Dade County is non-Hispanic white, while blacks are 20 percent of the population, Asians and Pacific Islanders are 2 percent, and Latinos are 57 percent. Similarly, only 33 percent of Los Angeles County is non-Hispanic White, while African Americans are 11 percent of the population, Asian and Pacific Islanders are 13 percent, and Latinos are 44 percent. Cook County in Illinois is 50 percent non-white; Harris County in Texas is 52 percent non-white; and Georgia's DeKalb County is 56 percent non-white.

At the same time, we are seeing decreases in the relative sizes of many African-American populations. In California, for example, the African-American population is now smaller than either the state's Asian American or Latino population. The number of black elected officials has grown since the 1960s, but populations within many of the districts that were once predominantly black are now increasingly Latino and Asian. Elected officials are much more likely to be representing a broad array of constituents, composed of several racial and ethnic groups.

It is difficult to generalize about when and how minority groups vote together-or separately. Polls of racially-charged ballot initiatives such as California's Proposition 209 have shown solid opposition from minority groups, and registration and voting patterns show very high levels of support for Democratic candidates among black voters, with strong majorities among many Latino and Asian American populations. But there can be conflicts as well. In Miami, for example, tensions between blacks and Latinos often lead to polarized voting.

Although it does not deal directly with issues such as minority coalitions and potential competition among groups, the Voting Rights Act does provide a basic set of protections to minority voters. The Act has always prohibited discrimination based on race, and since 1975 it has offered protection to language minority groups, including Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Section 203 of the Act specifically requires language assistance, such as bilingual ballots, in areas with significant immigrant populations.

But there is also uncertainty in the law. Under the guidelines set out in the leading case of Thornburg v. Gingles, plaintiffs can challenge discriminatory electoral systems such as at-large elections because they dilute minority voting strength. Among the requirements are evidence of racially polarized voting and the existence of a large and compact racial minority population that could form a majority within an electoral district.

One issue raised in a multiple minority setting is whether minority groups can be combined as a coalition to form a majority within a district. The courts have divided on this issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address it directly.

The limitations imposed on race-conscious redistricting by the U.S. Supreme Court's Shaw v. Reno and Miller v. Johnson line of cases also complicate the picture. Still, race-neutral criteria that have been endorsed by the Court, such as "maintaining communities of interest," are part of the law in many states, and can provide an avenue for protecting multiple minority interests. Minority populations


Page 18

that share common characteristics such as socioeconomic status or local business and transportation interests could be combined as a community of interest within a district's lines.

There are no easy solutions to the problems of potential competition between minority groups or to the challenges that minority incumbents may face through the changing demographics and politics of their constituencies. The advancement of common interests may offer the best hope for minority communities and the development of positive race relations. Simple line drawing along ethnic lines may result in short term gains for minority communities who have lacked representation in the past, but it may also lead to long term divisions between groups.

Coalition building is never easy, but it may provide the best hope for minority empowerment in an increasingly multi-ethnic America.

Angelo Ancheta is the Director of Legal and Advocacy Programs for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. From 1994 to 1998, he was the executive director of the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, which is the nation's oldest civil rights legal organization focusing on the Asian-American population.