If any doubt remains that the Voting Rights Act has been an effective instrument for expanding minority suffrage and office holding in the eight southern states fully covered by Section 5, this book should dispel it. Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman have assembled an impressive set of state-by-state analyses, pooled data interstate comparisons, and enough detailed descriptions of specific changes to convince any but the most misanthropic revanchist that but for the Voting Rights Act most of the progress toward minority political equality in voting and office holding would not have occurred.
The state-by-state stories demonstrate that the gains in minority office holding cannot be attributed to the diminishing prejudice of white voters against minority candidates, even in those few states where minority candidates have had considerable success in statewide and citywide elections. They also make a persuasive case that the need for the Act is far from ended. The most substantial gains made thus far have been in the urbanized south. Much remains to be done in the rural south, with the possible and notable exception of Mississippi. Moreover, progress has been faster and more extensive in those jurisdictions where the Act has been vigorously enforced, whether by the Department of Justice or private litigants.
The book is the product of a carefully designed research enterprise involving many authors and is a good model of how to keep so many independent spirits focused on a common research goal. It avoids the curse of most such volumes as the authors of each of the state chapters address and seek to measure by common techniques the changes that have occurred in minority registration and office holding. Each state chapter contains a set of similar tables containing useful data on registration and office holding before and after enforcement of the Act. Several of the state chapters have a complete listing of the court cases that produced changes from at-large to single member district or mixed electoral systems. The value of the volume would have been enhanced if the editor's discipline had extracted that feature in a consistent form from all of the authors. A tighter editing of the state chapters might also have eliminated some redundancies in explaining the methodology being employed. The chapter on registration belabors the obvious point that black registration was suppressed more extensively by local whites in those places where there was some real threat of a black majority. Here is a case where regressions are unnecessary, even if they are possible. These, however, are quibbles about a valuable contribution to the understanding the effects of one of the most important laws ever enacted.
To a remarkable extent, the Voting Rights Act has done what it set out to do. Its enforcement by the Justice Department and the federal courts, especially after the 1982 amendments corrected the crabbed reading of the original Act by the Supreme Court in BOLDEN V. THE CITY OF MOBILE, has eliminated most of the Jim Crow practices that
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restricted black political participation. In many respects, the most remarkable achievement has been the effect of the law on the reconstruction of the southern electoral system, using single member districts as the weapon of choice in expanding minority political power in state houses, and particularly in local governments. That this "quiet revolution" in the distribution of political power in the south has occurred without popular tumult (but not without a lot of litigating) is testimony to the predictive powers of the late Alfred L. Scanlan. In arguing the original Maryland reapportionment case in 1960, Scanlan responded to a concerned judge that he doubted that a favorable ruling would produce rioting in the streets by unseated incumbents.
It is in its uncritical treatment of single member districts that OUIET REVOLUTION is both most thorough and most disturbing. The editors disclaim an ambition to assess the comparative merits of different electoral arrangements or the extent to which minority elected officials have become an integral part of the political process. They argue that such matters are "third and fourth generation" issues. Even so, a reader might have hoped for greater consideration of the limitations of single member districts in meeting the narrow aims of the 1982 amendment to prevent minority vote dilution and to allow members of minority groups to have an equal chance to elect candidates of their choosing.
Neither the Act nor THORNBURA V. GINGLES, in which the Supreme Court laid out the standards for compliance with the Act, requires single member districts as a remedy. But it has been almost uniformly selected by the courts and litigants in all eight states (plus others). Why has so little creative imagination been brought to bear on an action with such profound implications for the system of local and state government, especially when there appear to be other, better ways of ensuring that minority voters have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice? To what extent has the remedy selected been controlled by the interests of self-selected plaintiffs who may not quite "representative" of a broader public interest in an inclusive and functional political system?
In another dimension, we learn how pervasive the use of the single member district remedy is, and how effective it has become in leading to election of minority candidates. We learn nothing from the state analyses, however, about how the districts were drawn to produce that result beyond the fact that the super majority of black population required to ensure the election of a black candidate appears to vary from state to state. That in itself is a useful point, and should caution those who seem bent on applying a rule of thumb that a safe minority district must contain at least 65 percent minority voters.
Single member districts have long been recognized as having the ability, if drawn artfully, of enhancing the electoral power of some groups and diluting the power of others. Both "packing" and "cracking" cohesive blocks of partisans, coreligionists, ethnics, and classes among a set of districts can, in dedicated hands, produce a governing body that creatively distorts the representation of interests in favor of the artist. Single member districts simplify elections by
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reducing electoral choice. They tend to produce a more diverse representative body than multiple member districts and at-large systems, but they remain suspect in many circles that are innocent of racial bias.
Traditionally, democratic reformers have insisted that single member districts should be of equal population, compact in form, and composed of contiguous territory. They have also favored their creation by bipartisan commissions. These criteria, to be sure, do not guarantee fully against gerrymandering by self-interested partisans, incumbents, and others, but they impose SOME constraints on the unabashed manipulation of the electoral system. They are faithful to the underlying idea that a geographic distribution of representation will reflect more fairly than not the space-based "communities of interest," of the polity, such as political subdivisions, and clusters of similar economic activities, and neighborhood interests. This does not suppose that physical propinquity is the sole basis for political interest. Party, class, religion, race, and other factors will intrude and often override or conflict with the community interests within the district. Thus, it is assumed that a fairly designed compact district will contain a variety of interests, the relative salience of which will depend upon times and circumstances.
Whether one interest dominates the others or the district is heterogeneous is not of central concern, although single member district advocates differ on the extent to which, within the rules, district drawers should strive for homogeneous or heterogeneous districts. Those who favor diverse districts argue that they tend to produce politicians who are skilled at compromise and coalition building. The friends of homogeneous districts maintain that legitimacy is promoted by ensuring that each self-conscious group has a champion in the government, and that compromise and accommodation will be promoted by a policy making process that no faction can consistently or permanently control.
The crux of designing a representative system is the salient variables upon which the districts should be based. When legislatures do the job, incumbency is often the most salient concern, with party control a close second. When a U.S. District Court orders a remedy for a violation of the Voting Rights Act, race matters most. It matters, in the logic of the litigation, because the votes cast by members of a cohesive and protected racial minority have been "diluted" by at large and mixed electoral systems as a result of polarized voting by whites, who refuse consistently to vote for a candidate who is a black or Hispanic. Q.E.D., the remedy is to undilute the minority vote by concentrating it, if a computer can do it, in its own district. There, if racial cohesion remains, only a black can win, and the odds of a minority candidate winning in the residual white district is even less than before. Construction of such districts, of course, may stretch the definition of contiguity to include several miles of highway median connecting isolated neighborhoods, or parts of blocks. Such districts seem to stretch to absurdity the GINGLES standard that "First, the minority group must be able to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member
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district" (478 U.S. 30, 50).
Although OUIET REVOLUTION was written before the decision in SHAW V. RENO, it is hard to believe that the constitutional issues raised there could not have been foreseen. In any event, harder thinking would have been welcome about how well single member districts ultimately achieve the objectives of the law in providing minority voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, as opposed to merely ensuring the election of minority candidates. Such districts do allow those minority voters who end up packed into racially homogeneous districts to vote for and elect candidates of their choice, assuming that the race of the candidate is the most salient factor determining their votes. For the minority voters who are left in the resulting overwhelmingly white districts, however, they have even less opportunity than before to elect candidates of their choice so long as racially polarized voting prevails. The implicit assumption of the single member district remedy is that such blacks and other minorities are vicariously represented by officials elected from the minority dominated districts, although they do not even have the opportunity of voting for them. The same, of course, can be said of Republicans in Democratic districts, which may explain the passion of Republican politicians for the creation of more safe black districts.
The editors asked that the state chapter authors resist speculation, and they got what they asked for. In many respects, we ought to be satisfied with the result -- a reliable resource remarkably free of the special pleading that so often surrounds the subject. We can hope that the next volume will address some of these third and fourth generation issues of equality of voting rights in the same patient and systematic way. The next set of issues are harder, but they are even more important, as they deal with the intersection of law and politics in fashioning a fair system of representative government that builds on a clearly necessary and effective national intervention into the foundations of state and local democratic governance.
CITY OF MOBILE V. BOLDEN 446. U.S. 55 (1980)
SHAW V. RENO 113 S.Ct. 2816 (1993)
THORNBURG V. GINGLES, 478 U.S. 30 (1986)