A Better Way to Put More Minorities in Congress Representation with Multimember Districts Can Do the Job without Racial Gerrymandering

By Hill, Steven | The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Better Way to Put More Minorities in Congress Representation with Multimember Districts Can Do the Job without Racial Gerrymandering


Hill, Steven, The Christian Science Monitor


Recently a divided US Supreme Court invalidated five minority congressional districts - two in North Carolina and three in Texas - ruling that the use of race as a predominant factor in drawing district lines violated the Constitution.

This is not the first time that the high court has thrown out a majority-minority district. Last June the justices invalidated the Georgia congressional district of black Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D). The court's rulings in recent years have rolled back 30 years of voting-rights litigation and activism, casting a long shadow on the constitutionality of dozens of legislative districts, from the county to the congressional level, that were designed to comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Critics of the act contend that, in recent years, several black politicians have been elected from majority-white electorates, such as Sen. Carol Mosley Braun (D), former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), Rep. Garry Franks (R) of Connecticut, and the mayors of New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver.

But a recent book, "Quiet Revolution in the South," convincingly demonstrates that, absent race-conscious gerrymandering, black political representation in the South could be nearly invisible. Cities with mixed elections - with both at-large and individual districts - provide an ideal test for the role of "safe" districts. In Southern cities whose black population was 30 to 50 percent, black candidates won 41 percent of the districted seats but only 4 percent of the at-large ones. In cites with 10 to 30 percent black population, blacks won 23 percent of districted seats but only 2 percent of the at-large ones. In Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, no black official was elected to a city council from an at-large seat in any majority-white city. No black has ever been elected to Congress from the South in a majority-white district. The two North Carolina districts that were thrown out elected the first black representatives from North Carolina this century. In the face of such racially polarized voting, the absence of any "safe" minority districts will translate directly into the absence of black officeholders.

Winner takes all

In the impassioned heat of the debate on affirmative action, what is lost is the fact that racial gerrymandering is the fault of a majoritarian "winner take all" voting system that routinely excludes minority candidates - racial, political or otherwise - that often cannot win a majority of votes by virtue of being a minority. This has resulted in dogged efforts for the past 30 years to graft onto a faulty voting system a hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts to make up for that inherent inequality. …

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