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Law designed to empower black voters does the opposite

ATLANTA --- The federal Voting Rights Act that was designed in the civil rights era to safeguard black electoral efficacy actually has the opposite effect now that it's been fully exploited by both parties in the South.

Not only that, some observers blame it for the polarized electorate that has cable-TV talk show guests yelling at each other and groups protesting and counter protesting across the country.

It might deserve some of the blame if the country defaults on its debts over the brewing debt-limit impass.

How did this law's impact end up so backward to its goals?

The original aim was to maintain or even strengthen blacks' voting power by ensuring fair redistricting.

As the Jim Crow laws were struck down and blacks were no longer barred from casting their ballots, the next strategy was to divide them up into separate districts where they would be in the minority and have little influence on the election results. So Congress added provisions in Section 5 of the law that require ample "majority minority" districts where blacks have the critical mass to determine the outcome of elections.

Since blacks so reliably vote Democratic, where they were put on the district maps became the most visible tool in the partisan battle. When Democrats run the redistricting, they tend to distribute black voters across as many districts as the law allows so they'll help keep Democratic lawmakers in the statehouse majority.

Democrats ran every Southern state when Congress passed the law in 1965, so it kept them from spreading the blacks so thin that they would never elect black representatives.

Those black legislators, in subsequent redistricting sessions, wanted to maximize the blacks in their districts to ensure re-election. Ironically, that aligned their interests with conservative Republicans who wanted as few blacks in their districts to improve their own re-election chances.

Over successive redistricting, this alliance of black Democrats and conservative Republicans intensified the phenomenon of packing blacks into as few districts as the law allows while leaving the majority of the districts to whites who vote conservative. By the 1980s, Republicans were winning control of legislative chambers in the South and gaining momentum in Congress.

The result has been districts that are either lopsided in the Democrats' favor or in the Republicans' and few swing districts. Elections in such districts are decided in primaries and often become contests to see who can appeal to the party's voting base, the most ideological.

Incumbents who stray from the party line toward the middle of the road draw primary challengers who are more ardent.

Edward Blum, the author of The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, argues the Voting Rights Act should be eliminated.

"It would surely create greater competitive elections. That is something social scientists don't even question anymore," said Blum.

Swing districts produce greater voter turnout and elect lawmakers with moderate voting records.

As it is, by grouping blacks together in majority-minority districts, they're almost guaranteed to have no influence in the Capitol. They might elect black Democrats to speak for them, but those Democrats are in the minority with no power.

At the same time, the white Republicans ignore black concerns with impunity because the black vote in their districts is negligible.

Not all observers agree.

Repealing the law would be a mistake, according to Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School. This is evidenced by the small number of communities that have won exemption from it by demonstrating 10 years without attempts to dilute black voting strength.

Congress apparently thinks there's still a need for the law because it reauthorized it in 2006, and some conservative, white southern Republicans like Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., argued for letting it die. So, it's going to be a factor in the redistricting that the Georgia General Assembly is about to engage in when the special session begins Aug. 15.

Not only that, it's likely to be a factor when the Democrats fight the resulting maps in court.

And partisan bickering is bound to continue for another 10 years.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, July 14, 2011

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