The Multimember District: A Study of the Multimember District and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

By Smith, George Bundy | Albany Law Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Multimember District: A Study of the Multimember District and the Voting Rights Act of 1965


Smith, George Bundy, Albany Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

During the 1960s, the combination of two struggles gave African Americans the opportunity to fully participate in the political process. The first was the reapportionment revolution that began with Baker v. Carr. (1) The second was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (2) One outcome of those struggles was the multimember district, which many saw as an effort to continue the obstacles which prevented African Americans from effectively voting. A multimember district may be defined as one in which the same voters elect more than one representative to serve a geographical area that could be divided into several areas, each represented by a single person. (3) It is clear that, in some instances, the multimember district is one of the methods used to thwart Black gains in voting. (4) At the same time, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that multimember districts are not per se unconstitutional. (5) This thesis examines the multimember district with respect to the dilution of African American voting strength. The inquiry seeks to answer the following questions: (1) What is the present state of the law with respect to multimember districts? (2) Have court decisions with respect to multimember districts advanced the objectives of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

After a brief introduction on the history of African American voting in this country, the thesis proceeds to a discussion of the multimember district, and concludes that while the objective of the 1982 Amendment to the Voting Rights Act was clear, the achievement of the objective has been complicated by differing views in the Supreme Court on what was meant by Congress and how Congress intended to implement the Amendment. The objective has also been complicated by the questionable introduction of equal protection jurisprudence. Finally, the study concludes that while huge gains have been made to protect the right of African Americans to vote, the struggle is far from over.

II. THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 1965

Prior to the Civil War, there were numerous restrictions on African American voting. Only five states had no racial restriction on the right to vote. (5) Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. (6) In twenty-three states, the right to vote was limited to White males. (7) The passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution gave African Americans the legal right to vote. (8) Nevertheless, efforts were made to intimidate and prevent African Americans from voting. (9) In the two decades following the end of Reconstruction, the African American in the South was disenfranchised. (10)

Beginning in 1890, efforts were made throughout the South to give the disenfranchisement of African Americans a legal foundation. (11) The efforts occurred despite the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution states that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." (12) Through the last decade of the nineteenth century, and the first few decades of the twentieth, many barriers were erected in order to nullify that provision. Literacy tests, flexible and arbitrary qualifications for registration, property qualifications, grandfather clauses, white primaries, and other obstacles resulted in the wholesale denial of the vote to African Americans in some parts of the South. (13) In 1964, the Attorney General of the United States gave estimates of the percentages of voting-age African Americans who were registered to vote in several southern states: Mississippi, less than seven percent, Alabama, less than twenty percent, and Louisiana, less than thirty-two percent. (14)

In 1961 the United States Commission on Civil Rights gave the following comparisons between Whites and Nonwhites of voting age who were registered to vote:

State             % Whites Registered   % Nonwhites
Registered

Alabama                   63. 

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