Drawn out of the Game

Article excerpt

Some voters and scholars say redistricting recalls the specter of disenfranchisement.

The way today's legislators draw political boundary lines reminds Deralyn Davis of the kinds of obstacles that kept Blacks from voting back when her grandmother had to pay $1.75 for the privilege.

The Fort Worth native is a tough, no-nonsense 71-year-old grandmother who stared down bigots and ignored threats while traveling throughout the South to register voters during the late 1960s. But when politicians recently redrew political boundary lines in her state, Davis says they ended any chance she and other minorities had of electing candidates of their choice.

Now she's afraid her past struggles mean nothing.

"This is the backdoor way to disenfranchise minorities all over again," Davis says. "It's the modern day poll tax."

This November's mid-term elections could propel Black leaders to the most powerful positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, provided Democrats manage to take control of the chamber. But some political observers say redistricting ploys could play a large role in keeping Democrats out of power for another term.

Redistricting - it's basic to American democracy, but has grown increasingly complex. Complicated or not, playing God with geography for political gain dramatically impacts the lives of every voter, but especially Blacks, Hispanics and other groups struggling for power.

Each year, across the country hundreds of politicians are chosen for office - long before the first voter casts his or her ballot. Computer technicians, at the behest of politicians, use sophisticated software to draw bizarrely shaped legislative districts that determine who gets elected and, ultimately, what issues get debated.

Redistricting is all about getting and keeping power. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities say it's tough enough just getting their representatives into office, and they fear that redistricting is making things worse. Many scholars and activists argue that if the party in power continues to be allowed to draw districts that favor their candidates, minority voters will increasingly find themselves drawn out of the game.

Intended and Unintended Consequences

Democrats and Republicans, depending on which party is in control, commonly cram opponents into as few districts as possible, limiting their voting power, or spread them across several districts so that there is no way these voters can impact an election. Insiders call the strategies used to dilute voting strength, packing and cracking.

But that's old school.

Legislators now use another method that puts ardent supporters in the same district with a slightly smaller number of ardent opponents. The technique, called matching, effectively neutralizes the opposition, according to a Harvard University study by Drs. John N. Friedman and Richard T. Holden, two economists studying the decline of competitive elections. Their report, released last spring, details the effects of matching and other redistricting strategies. According to the study, the practice of matching is having a significant negative effect on minority representation. National statistics show that more than 90 percent of incumbents return to office, and only five to 10 lose their seat each election cycle. The new "matching strategy" is making it even more likely that politicians can choose their voters instead of the other way around.

"It's quite a novel idea," says Holden, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But the concern here is that using a tactic like this, which may be more efficient than the pack and crack strategy, might further reduce minority representation."

The practice, ironically, took root 40 years ago, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The landmark civil rights legislation was created to overcome a legacy of poll taxes, Whites-only primaries and literacy tests, especially in Southern states. …

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