It’s been a wild few days in Virginia. Unfortunately, I’ve been way too sick this week to do much writing. However, this opinion on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady striking down Virginia’s Third Congressional seat is simply too fat a target to pass up.
The conventional progressive reaction (quickly to Twitter!) is to blame the Richmond Republicans for “packing” African American voters into a district that went from a desirable 51% black majority to a nefarious 56%. The purpose of that “packing” was clearly to strengthen the campaign odds of surrounding Republican congressmen. And it resulted in a district that was a geographic joke — with no discernible connection between Richmond City and the precincts in Newport News and then blatantly carved out slices of Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth tossed in for effect.
But that’s not my issue. My question is — why are we still using race at all in this process?
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 after one hundred years of organized segregation, equalized access to the ballot for the first time in U.S. history in the Southern states. It was a great and necessary law. However, it wasn’t meant to predetermine the outcome of subsequent races or create “safe seats” for any group of politicians, liberal or conservative.
After the VRA became law, it was amended it to strike down districts where the minority vote was “diluted” so as to effectively silence their voice in selecting representatives. This was to deal with legislatures, like Virginia, which simply split up the minority vote. Again, the purpose and effect of that change was salutary.
Then the Bush I administration did something both devious and brilliant that forever altered the landscape of Southern politics. Starting after the 1990 census, the Bush DOJ refused to “pre-clear” Southern legislative maps unless they had “maxed out” the number of majority-minority legislative districts. This process, done with no statutory mandate, led to a wholesale election of new minority members in 1991-1992 (good thing), while simultaneously tilting the legislative landscape to the Republicans.
In the short run, that was mostly good. The South needed a good shakeup. But the long run of that standard is highly flawed and, frankly, it’s got to change.
The result of the “Bush Push” for minority districts, and the continued application of that standard a generation later, is that states like Virginia, which are evenly divided or lean Democratic, can still have a legislature which is 68-32 Republican. (There are other reasons, but this is far and away #1 in my opinion).
Oddly enough, the Democratic Party, flummoxed by the language of inclusion and their own parochial concerns, refused to object to this strategy either in 1991 or today — much less challenge its constitutionality. Most political scientists are careful not to mention it when they talk about “gerrymandering” and Republican majorities.
That obliviousness has led to odd and self-defeating rhetoric, such as a 2011 debate in which Virginia House Democrats challenged the Republican map because it didn’t create enough minority districts. Umm, guys? Where is that result going to take you?
The stance is doubly bizarre in Virginia, in which Barack Obama has twice won state-wide. (And nobody drew the boundaries of the Commonwealth with that in mind). In Northern Virginia, “minority” candidates are elected all the time in white-majority seats. And I have a hard time seeing anyone beat Don McEachin in Richmond or Louise Lucas in Portsmouth in a traditional, city-wide seat.
(Finally I’ve yet to hear a plausible way of acknowledging the existence of those families, numbering over 10% of the population, which draw from multiple cultures and colors. Are you going to draw a Congressional line through the bedroom next?).
I’m sure this paltry cry for help will pass unnoticed or be rebutted by the scholarly edicts of $600/hr lawyers who use terms like “Gingles standard”, “retrogressivity” or the “five-part compactness test.” Sorry, I’m not that smart.
But I did stay near a Holiday Inn Express last night. And I know that this cynical format cannot last forever. Hopefully, our kids won’t stand for it.