RICHMOND, Va. — When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, it was an antidote to Jim Crow-era efforts to suppress the black vote in Southern states still fighting bloody battles over racial equality.
Forty-six years later, the law has become a partisan arguing point in several Dixie statehouses between Democrats and Republicans bent on justifying opposing strategies to increase their respective advantages in this year’s redistricting debates.
Republicans boost the minority population of some black congressmen, saying the Voting Rights Act prevents any dilution of black voting strength, even as it renders nearby districts whiter and more Republican-friendly.
Democrats call that “packing,” or an effort to minimize districts where minorities can elect candidates of their choice, and they contend that’s exactly the sort of thing the act was intended to stop.
Most likely, it will be President Barack Obama’s Justice Department and ultimately the federal courts that decide who prevails.
Democrats take some comfort knowing this is the first redistricting year since the act was passed that the Justice Department is under a Democratic White House.
“We feel assured of a fair, level playing field as we go forward,” said state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, a member of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus.
The civil rights division of the Justice Department has generally ruled fairly evenly on redistricting issues under GOP presidents, however, so it might not matter much who’s in charge.
In Virginia, where one in every five residents is black, only one of the state’s 11 U.S. House members is. That doesn’t sit well with some African American legislators who contend black voters should have the chance to elect their favored candidate in more than one district.
“I’ve had experience litigating redistricting cases, and to me it’s pretty clear that we can do better than the status quo,” said state Sen. Henry Marsh, a veteran civil rights attorney and former Richmond mayor. “I think the Voting Rights Act requires more than that.”
The Constitution compels states to reset their political boundaries after each decennial census to account for population changes. In Virginia and 35 other states where legislatures are responsible for reapportionment, it’s an unabashed exercise in raw politics with an emphasis on partisan advantage.
The Voting Rights Act prohibits voting discrimination anywhere in the U.S. But one part of the law — Section 5 — applies only to places with a history of such discrimination, most of them in the South. It compels all or part of 16 states, including Virginia, to submit redistricting plans and other election law changes to the Justice Department, which vets them to safeguard against minority disenfranchisement.
Virginia’s Democratic-led state Senate wants to create one district with a slight voting-age black majority while reducing the black population of Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott’s 3rd District below 50 percent but still sufficient for Scott to win. That would boost the chances of electing representative preferred by black voters, perhaps even a second black U.S. House member from Virginia.
However, the Republican-backed House bill increases from 53 percent to 56.3 percent the concentration of black voters in Scott’s district, which currently snakes from Richmond south to Petersburg, then southeast along the James River to Norfolk, cherry-picking black precincts in Newport News, Hampton and Portsmouth along its way.
Scott sees no way to reconcile the two profoundly different plans.
“The House is insisting on one (largely black district) and the Senate is insisting on two,” Scott said, predicting that a two-month legislative impasse will persist. “Many senators have concluded that if the Legislature doesn’t draw a plan, then any court-drawn plan wouldn’t be any worse than the House-drawn plan.”
Scott, 64, said he supports the Senate plan, even though the voting-age black population that has helped him win 10 terms in Congress would decrease to 45 percent. He calls the House GOP plan “an incumbent-protection plan” and notes that black candidates have prevailed in districts with more modest minority populations. After all, Virginia was the first state to elect a black governor with L. Douglas Wilder’s victory in 1989.
But Scott’s position is not universally shared, not even by other black Democrats. In June, nine of the Virginia House’s 13 black members voted for the Republican plan, including some legislators who might one day want to succeed Scott.
“Maybe Congressman Scott can get re-elected, but what about Kenneth Alexander in the 3rd?” said Del. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk and former chairman of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and violence that intimidated and discouraged black voters were what a Congress intended to eradicate when it passed the Voting Rights Act.
“We were not talking about electing anybody then. We were just trying to simply get people to go to the polls,” said Joe Reed, 72, of Montgomery, Ala., chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference — the black wing of the Alabama Democratic Party.
Until the 1990s, crafty mapping kept black power dispersed among multiple districts in many old civil rights battlegrounds, muting black voters’ voices, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“This was after a long period of the Voting Rights Act where, across the whole South, there were only five African Americans in Congress from the South in 1991,” Black said.
That’s when federal court decisions mandated creation of majority-minority districts. But Republicans in state legislatures quickly saw that the mandate to create minority-dominant — and Democratic-leaning — districts could make even more districts safer for conservatives. That contributed to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
In Alabama, which has seven U.S. House seats, Reed this year asked the Republican-run Legislature to create two districts with black populations of about 55 percent. It refused, and instead boosted the state’s lone majority black district from 62.4 percent to 63.6 percent by importing mostly black precincts from two neighboring districts that were already overwhelmingly white.
In North Carolina, with 13 U.S. House seats, Democrats also unsuccessfully pushed for several “influence” districts with minority populations ranging from 40 percent to 50 percent where black candidates could win without an outright majority. Instead, the GOP-ruled General Assembly created a solid Democratic district in the Triangle region and drew two districts with black voting-age populations exceeding 50 percent.
State Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said the GOP packed nearly half of North Carolina’s black population into those three districts to make surrounding districts more Republican-friendly.
During debate on the plan, Michaux told Republicans, “I thought we had gotten out of ghettoizing folks for a long time.”