In the wake of the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, The Boston Globe‘s Joseph Williams has an article discussing the pros and cons of “majority-minority” districts from a progressive point of view. As Williams explains, celebrations of the Act’s renewal are tempered with a growing concern about the dilution of the African American vote:
But the renewal overshadowed a quiet but growing debate among Democrats: whether mostly black voting districts in cities like Petersburg — which helped elect the state’s first African-American House member in more than 100 years — should be diluted to spread around liberal voters and help elect more Democrats get to Congress.
While most black politicians and activists agree with the concept of “majority-minority” districts, others say they’re a mixed blessing: By sweeping a concentrated number of black voters into fewer districts, the Voting Rights Act’s unintended effect may be to increase racial polarization and help preserve Republican congressional power
Some Democrats, including some African-Americans, believe their party has better odds of retaking Congress if African-American voters are divided among many districts, leaving just enough of a percentage in any one district to elect minority candidates while helping more Democrats run competitively in surrounding districts.
Since African Americans vote about 90 percent Democratic, finding the right balance is a difficult challenge. Democrats squeemish about addressing such raw political calculations should take note that Republicans’ are more than eager to overload districts with African American voters. As Williams notes:
…Republican-dominated legislatures try to design districts with the maximum possible number of minorities — such as the 2d district of Louisiana, which is 63.7 percent black and elected Representative William Jefferson to Congress with 79 percent of the vote.
The point is echoed by University of Virginia elections expert Larry Sabato “The Democrats have an enormous number of excess votes in these majority-minority districts.” Maryland Political Scientist Ron Walters disagrees, pointing out that 60 percent African American voters may not be enough to secure minority representation in some districts.
The debate will continue to intensify at the state level, where congressional districts are redesigned. (For a more in-depth analysis of the issue, see Thomas F. Schaller’s article). If Democrats do as well as expected in the gubernatorial races this fall, and win a few key state legislatures, they will soon be faced with increasingly difficult redistricting decisions to secure the Party’s future.