Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Rights & Reason: Gerrymandering Reality

Remember when Democrats in the Texas legislature fled to neighboring states to avoid voting on a Republican-backed congressional reapportionment plan? Yesterday a three-judge federal court rejected a Democratic challenge to the now-approved plan, turning away arguments that the Republicans engaged in racial discrimination. Ironically, the leading defender of minority voters is Rep. Martin Frost, a white Democrat whose district was effectively dissolved by the GOP. Frost remained on the warpath, however: “By judicial fiat, a three-judge federal panel has effectively repealed the Voting Rights Act and turned back the clock on nearly 40 years of progress for minority voters.”

Actually, minorities are just as free to vote today as they were before the Texas legislature’s shenanigans. The original objective of voting rights legislation was to end state practices that actually prevented minorities from voting—poll taxes, literacy tests, voter intimidation, etc. What happened was minority voters, as a bloc, decided to slavishly follow the Democratic party. This allows the Democrats to argue that any reapportionment that benefits Republicans, by definition, disadvantages minorities.

This is why the courts and the Justice Department insist on a certain number of “majority-minority” districts in certain states, or what amounts to affirmative action for congressmen. The theory is that minority votes will only “count” if there’s a critical mass of them to affect the outcome of an election. There is no difference between this application of critical mass theory and the one propogated by the University of Michigan policies recently challenged (and partially upheld) by the Supreme Court. Maybe this explains why the Bush Justice Department went soft on Michigan—they realized it would force them to disavow much of contemporary voting rights law. The White House would prefer to compete for minority voters on the issues—or more accurately, by pandering to these votes—rather than incite them by decisively standing against affirmative action.

The objective truth, however, is that no amount of partisan gerrymandering can disenfranchise minority voters. Only the voters themselves can do this by reflexively backing one political party regardless of self-interest. In antitrust law, regulators discuss anticompetitive behavior by producers. In elections, it is the consumers that act anticompetitively by refusing to cross racial and party lines. When the Democrats know they don’t have to compete for minority votes, they’ll put their resources into keeping other constituencies within the fold.

Perhaps the best example of this is the District of Columbia, an overwhelmingly black Democratic jurisdiction. For decades D.C. residents have asked Congress to expand genuine voting rights—that is, for voting House and Senate members—to the District. Despite the long Democratic domination of Congress prior to 1994, there was never any action on this issue despite plenty of lip service from Democratic leaders. The party never acted because there was no consequence for not acting—D.C. residents won’t vote Republican—and because other factions demanded more immediate attention. For their part, Republicans won’t acting on D.C. voting rights because there’s nothing for them to gain; if they succeed, they would just hand the Democrats three more seats in Congress.

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