Beware of Republicans Bearing Voting Rights Suits

Article excerpt

BEWARE OF REPUBLICANS BEARING VOTING RIGHTS SUITS

In December 1985, the Supreme Courtheard Thornburg v. Gingles, a case that seemed like it was torn from the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird. The case, which concerned racial gerrymandering in North Carolina, was a familiar confrontation of civil rights groups and their conservative opponents. On one side of the chamber stood the Reagan Administration's Solicitor General, Charles Fried, the attorney general of North Carolina, and the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy group. Opposing them were the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a bipartisan group of congressmen including Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Dole. Last spring, the Court ruled in favor of the NAACP et al.

Reinforcing the civil rights advocates in theirsuit was a fellow petitioner that clouded the political battle--the Republican National Committee (RNC). In his supporting brief, RNC general counsel Mark Braden claimed that the Republican concern was "fair and effective representation for all the citizens of North Carolina in their state legislature.' On the sidelines, other Republicans, including North Carolina's Gov. Jim Martin, cheered him on. A state GOP official told The Washington Post that "there was a happy coincidence between blacks and Republicans.'

Blacks and Republicans came together inNorth Carolina--and across the South--to create black legislative districts, enclaves with a majority black population. In the last few years, many of the nation's most prominent civil rights groups, joined by local Republicans, have used provisions of the Voting Rights Act to overturn existing electoral plans. For blacks, creating black majority districts is a simple way of ensuring the election of black representatives. For Republicans, packing blacks into a few districts means that the surrounding districts become whiter, less Democratic, and fertile soil for GOP candidates. Of course, race-based redistricting has often been used to defeat racists and increase black representation. But in teaming up with the Republicans to create more and more heavily black majority districts, civil rights groups may ultimately harm their own cause.

While the Reagan Administration was opposedto racial redistricting in the Thornburg case, there are signs that the Department of Justice has used the Voting Rights Act to partisan advantage. Furthermore, the Voting Rights Act may well be one of the legal tools the GOP will use in its "1991 Plan'--its all-out strategy to influence reapportionment following the 1990 census.

Redistricting has always been used as a weaponin party politics by both sides, but more is at stake now than a shift of some votes to the Republican column. In local elections, where candidates often run independent of party affiliation, voting rights suits have created districts where white candidates no longer need to court black voters-- and vice versa. And there is the great danger that as redistricting spreads, state houses, county commissions, and even Congress will become dominated by two factions--blacks who are unaccountable to whites, and whites who are unaccountable to blacks.

"You know, the federal government goesthrough the South,' one RNC aide joked, "and says you have been very bad to your blacks. You have to desegregate your restaurants, your schools, and your hotels. And, yes, you have to segregate your districts.'

Common cause

The exact number of voting rights suits isunclear, but dozens are launched every year. New York City and Chicago have had their days in court, just like Lubbock, Texas. Anchorage, Alaska even has a suit pending. How these suits have affected the fortunes of the two major political parties remains uncertain. One thing is known: When white Democrats are decoupled from their black constituents, they lose.

Look at the aftermath of voting rights suits inthe South. …