Not So Quiet Anymore. Reviewed by Pamela S. Karlan
Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995 pp. 18-19, 21
Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990, edited by Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman (Princeton University Press, 1994, 512 pages)
There is a deep irony in the title of Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman’s massive study of the Voting Rights Act’s first twenty-five years. The revolution isn’t so quiet anymore. Lani Guinier’s ill-fated nomination, the creation of new majority-nonwhite legislative districts following the 1990 census, the Republican takeover of Congress, and now the Supreme Court’s action overturning the 11th congressional district in Georgia have generated huge controversy over the Act’s goals, assumptions, and techniques. Critics of the Voting Rights Act have seized the rhetorical and anecdotal high ground, throwing around phrases such as “balkanization” and “political apartheid,” and examples such as former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, U.S. Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut, and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. The critics’ underlying assumptions are that the Act is no longer necessary, because black voters now participate fully in the political life of the Nation, and that the Act is pernicious, because it magnifies racial tensions and denies the possibilities of cross-racial coalitions and representation.
Quiet Revolution offers a powerful factual rejoinder to these assumptions. But the book’s greatest strength — its dispassionate attention to detail — leaves open the question of how to respond to the emotional chord that resonates in the conservative critique: the fear that America will be swept up in the rising tide of ethnic and racial separatism that is threatening multi-ethnic nation-states around the world, from the relatively decorous secessionism of the Quebecois in Canada to the bloody disintegration of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The first part of Quiet Revolution consists of state-by-state studies of voting rights in the eight Southern states which are required by Section 5 of the Act to preclear voting and election changes by judicial or Justice Department review. The format of the chapters, which include parallel charts detailing black enfranchisement, changes in black representation on local governing bodies, and the reasons for alterations in election structure, enables readers to make cross-state comparisons. Each chapter also contains a history of black political participation within the state, from Reconstruction to post-Thornburg v. Gingles litigation in the late 1980s.
Five conclusions emerge. First, the historical over-views show how many “traditional” American electoral practices, such as at-large elections and majority-vote requirements, were deliberately designed to dilute black voting strength. The persistence of these practices well into the 1980s show how resistant the South has been to full enfranchisement of blacks. The chapters’ accounts of post-Act behavior, including numerous Section 5 objections to redistricting after the 1970 and 1980 censuses, show that these problems remain.
Second, the Act has been tremendously successful at enfranchising black voters. Although some problems remain (which the 1993 National Voter Registration Act may address), the Voting Rights Act has eliminated most formal barriers to participation.
Third, the Act has transformed the representational structure of Southern politics. In the 1960s, the vast majority of local governing bodies were elected at-large and substantial numbers of state legislators were chosen from multi-member districts; by 1990, single-member districts were the norm for both local governing bodies and legislative districts.
Fourth, most of the increase in black office-holding is attributable to the switch to single-member districts. Few blacks are elected in at-large elections. Of particular salience is the experience in cities using “mixed plans”ס blend of single-member and at-large seats. In these jurisdictions, the districted seats account for virtually all the black elected officials. The failure of black candidates to win election to at-large seats strongly suggests continued racial bloc voting: if white voters were willing to vote for black candidates, then one would expect success rates for districted and at-large seats within a given jurisdiction to be comparable.
Fifth, the South did not change voluntarily. Litigation
and the threat of litigation were the major factors in causing the abandonment of at-large elections. Indeed, the cross-state comparisons show that states such as Alabama and Mississippi, in which both local black political organizations and national civil rights groups were active litigators, made far more progress than states such as Virginia in which little litigation occurred. Moreover, the bulk of the litigation was brought by the civil rights bar, rather than the Department of Justice. Thus, while Section 5 is a critical tool in the voting rights enforcement arsenal once single-member districts have been created (because the decennial redistricting required by one-person, one-vote must pass through preclearance), a large number of the single-member district plans now used in the South would never have been created but for the litigation efforts of private groups and individuals.
The second part of Quiet Revolution consists of three substantive chapters and a summary of the research findings. One chapter analyzes the Act’s impact on voter registration; the other two deal with the effect of municipal election structure on black representation and the impact of the Voting Rights Act on black legislative and congressional representation.
Davidson and Grofman’s research design enables them to convincingly refute two of the most prevalent conservative arguments against the Voting Rights Act. First, conservatives often point to increased black representation in majority-white jurisdictions today to suggest that the change to single-member districts was unnecessary; blacks would have attained electoral success anyway. The longitudinal design of the state-by-state data, however, suggests a fallacy in this reasoning: the remaining at-large jurisdictions are simply not typical of the larger pool of jurisdictions that elected at-large in 1970. Thus, the “worst” (i.e., most racially polarized and discriminatory) jurisdictions are not in the contemporary at-large sample. Moreover, the data show that in a substantial number of states, black representation in at-large jurisdictions did not change appreciably, and in state legislatures the percentage of blacks elected from majority-white districts actually declined during the 1980s.
Second, conservatives often deny the persistence of racial bloc voting. Quiet Revolution does not directly examine this question, although several of the state-by-state chapters do provide citations to the hundreds of voting rights cases that have found significant polarization. But in the chapter on legislative and congressional representation, Grofman and his co-author, Lisa Handley, offer a different sort of proof. If the “color-blind” hypothesis were correct, then, as a statistical matter, one would expect that 180 of the 1144 majority-white state house districts in the South would have black representatives; in fact, only 14 did. Thus, the color-blind hypothesis was off by an order of magnitude. Similarly, the color-blind hypothesis would predict that 61 of the 181 majority-black districts would elect white representatives; in fact, only 40 did. Thus, however desirable a color-blind political process might be, Quiet Revolution convincingly shows we have not arrived yet at that promised land.
Quiet Revolution consciously avoids addressing the third- and fourth-generation issues of voting rights: Can black representatives participate fully within elected bodies? What impact has the Voting Rights Act had on substantive policy outcome? The authors’ explanation of this decision is persuasive: one book cannot comprehensively settle every aspect of the wide-ranging debate over political fairness and the allocation of power in a multi-racial society that lies at the heart of the Voting Rights Act. But Quiet Revolution is nonetheless an essential tool in the ongoing debate because it establishes one central point: if
we want integrated governing bodies in contemporary America then we simply must draw majority-nonwhite districts to achieve them.
Quiet Revolution will not silence all the critics; unfortunately, many of them are not merely ignorant of the facts but are actively indifferent to them. But Davidson and Grofman’s book will empower defenders of the Act to strip the conservative critique of its pretense to empirical truth. And it squarely confronts courts and commentators with the exorbitant price of abandoning the Act’s commitment to equal electoral opportunity.
Pamela S. Karlan is the Roy L. and Rosamond Woodruff Morgan Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and a 1994-1995 Visiting professor at Harvard Law School.