Posts Tagged Voting Rights Act

Alert! Georgia More Conservative Than Massachusetts!

Larry Sabato is one of the sharpest political analysts working today.  Even 25 years ago, when I was at Virginia, he was a rising star.  Now, he is a star.  His Crystal Ball blog is a must-read for electoral analysis.  Which is why it’s so surprising that he’d publish an article that uses so thin a justification to show the necessity of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 reviews.

Today, 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was established, a number of southern states and Alaska and Arizona have their election practices closely scrutinized by the US Justice Department.  Essentially this means that redistricting plans, changes to non-partisan voting, etc., need to be passed on by Justice, in order to show that they don’t discriminate against minorities.

Alan Abramowitz, of Emory University in Atlanta, purports to show that such measures are still necessary because whites in Section 5 states vote Republican at higher rates that whites elsewhere.  Seriously, that’s his argument.   Blacks and other minorities vote Democrat is similar proportions in Section 5 states as elsewhere.

Gerrymandering is as old as the country itself, used to give one party a locked-in electoral advantage in legislative seats or Congressional seats.  (While some may claim that the Senate or Electoral College are unfair, the one thing they can’t be is gerrymandered, since state boundaries are immutable.)  The majority – or the party controlling the redistricting process – will seek to pack as many of the opposing party as possible into a few high-margin districts, while creating as many lower-margin, but still safe seats for itself.  I’ll let you win that one seat 90-10 until the end of time, if I can create two districts weighted my way 60-40.

Long ago, we decided that while redistricting would have to remain an inherently political process, there was no excuse for its being a racial one.  Thus Section 5.  It would simply not be acceptable to pack minorities into legislative ghettos.  (That minorities routinely win races in white districts, while whites rarely win in minority districts, is a paradox beyond the scope of this post, but certainly another indicator that Section 5’s days have past.)

However, it simply stands to reason that if minorities vote more heavily Democrat relative to the state as a whole, gerrymandering that is based on solely on partisan voting will disproportionately affect minorities within that state.  Abramowitz’s argument that Section 5 Republicans have an incentive to pack minorities into districts is true, but it’s equally true if they’re doing so only to maintain a partisan advantage.

But state-to-state, one might just as easily say that in more liberal states, whites are disproportionately disenfranchised, since they are more likely to vote Republican, and more likely to be in a partisan minority statewide.  It would be beyond absurd to use that fact as an excuse for the Justice Department to protect Republican voters in those states.  Neither, should the voting tendencies of minorities be used as an excuse to protect Democratic voters in Section 5 states.

Incidentally, Abramowitz’s division of the country into Section 5 states and non-Section 5 states makes legal sense, but not analytical sense.  The non-Section 5 part of the country is hardly monolithic; Illinois looks little, if anything, like Kansas, but we are not treated to a discussion of whether or not minorities in those states suffer disproportionately from what is assumed to be purely partisan gerrymandering.

You wouldn’t think the revelation that Georgians are more conservative than New Yorkers would be news to a political science professor at Emory, in Atlanta.  It may not be, but his argument amounts to punishing southern whites not for being racist, but for voting Republican.  Presumably, if they voted as Democrat as whites in the rest of the country, Abramowitz would see no need to continue Section 5.  He is silent on what he would recommend were minorities to begin to vote more Republican.

Abramowitz closes with a prediction – that as minority population numbers in these states climb, Republicans will have an incentive to gerrymander minorities even more, in order to hold onto power.  The perverse incentives of party and race will work to keep minorities powerless, he says.

Which bring us to the worst, most perverse incentives of Section 5: for the Democrats to continue to pursue the race-conscious policies that have characterized their party since before the Civil War.  For if we buy into Abramowitz’s logic, as long as they vote overwhelmingly Democrat, they’ll be gerrymandered unfairly.  The Democrats thus consciously help to perpetuate the very problem they claim requires a legal remedy, even though there’s no longer any evidence that it requires a remedy at all.


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