Replace Section V of the Voting Rights Act With A Better Redistricting Process

February 28, 2013 11:00 am

by Charlie · 21 comments

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was argued before the US Supreme Court this week, the sticking point in an Alabama case that will likely see the portion of the law altered or struck down.  Section V only applies to “state and local governments with a history of voter disenfranchisement”.  As such, in a search to provide equal voting rights to all Americans it maintains a separate but equal approach to administering voting laws across the US.

The Supreme Court warned in an earlier decision that Congress should take a serious look at updating the law which holds predominantly Southern states to a different standard than others when administering voting laws.  The standards and practices have not been significantly changed since the South was dominated by segregation.

The law has had some unintended consequences.  The law that was designed to ensure that black voters would be able to elect black representatives has resulted in the decimation of white southern Democrats.  Even the Democrats bemoaned the strict application of the law during Georgia’s last redistricting process – as if somehow overlooking the law to allow the election of more democrats or drawing districts specifically for more white democrats would have been acceptable under the law and for justice department and judicial reviews.

Gerrymandering of Congressional districts has been cited as one of the chief polarization of partisan viewpoints in Congress.  It is almost mandated in areas covered by Section V but occurs most anywhere there is a partisan edge in state houses that match the party of the Governor in those states.

Georgia Republicans were rightfully incensed about the districts drawn by Democrats when they controlled the reapportionment process after the 2000 census.  Democrats were equally not amused by Republican efforts after 2010.  Democrats are adopting a strategy to retake the state in 2018, leaving control of the Governor’s mansion a key factor in who will draw the maps in 2021 – and thus set a partisan advantage for the next decade.

Now would be a good time to propose a change to Section V that preserves voting rights and restores “communities of interest” as a concept that trumps the forced process of redrawing districts along racial lines.  It would also be a good time to ensure that the party with control in 2021 isn’t able to abuse the process once again.

The law should be rewritten to establish clear processes on how districts are drawn, based on geographic boundaries rather than racial ones.  Concepts should include that a county that has the population of more than a congressional district should contain one district within the boundaries of a county.  Counties should not split Congressional representation by more than one Congressional district.  An order of importance for natural and man-made geographic boundaries should be established such as city limit lines, rivers, interstate highways, etc. to be used when deciding where district lines should be.

In Georgia, the numbers of state house members and state senate districts are close enough that an additional rule (which would require a state constitutional amendment) could further refine the process to members of the General Assembly:  Three state house districts must be self contained within each state senate district.  Four State Senate districts must be self contained within each Congressional district.

If Georgia still has 14 Congressional districts after 2020’s census, this would result in the same 56 state Senate districts we have now, and 168 (instead of 180) state house districts.  Should we have a 15th district added, Georgia would add 4 State Senators and would end up with 171 State House members.

The bigger result would be that those who represent us in Congress and here at home would have a closer connection to the citizens and the local governments within their jurisdiction.  The communities would again be choosing their leaders, and we would end the current system where leaders choose their voters.

And, perhaps most specifically, more of our elected officials would be representing constituents who were black and white, rich and poor, but have the common ties of community.  That, rather than hyper partisan highly segregated districts, is much closer to the spirit of the voting rights act than the unintended consequences which have resulted today.

 

SallyForth February 28, 2013 at 11:51 am

Good one, Charlie. Drawing lines based on race is, in itself, racial discrimination most blatant. “Communities of interest” make geographic sense and build common ground for all, regardless of color, for their political and neighborhood areas. Let’s hope somebody at SCOTUS buys into the concept of freedom and justice for all in this, the 21st century.

Chris Huttman February 28, 2013 at 11:52 am

As an aside separate from a larger comment, section 5 did not make the Republicans draw the districts as aggressively as they did. The Republican redistricting maximized black population inside of as few Democratic districts as possible, and left very few districts that a Democrat can win that aren’t majority minority. It complies with Section 5. But so did the 2001 Democratic maps which basically took the opposite approach. And so did the court drawn 2004 map (and 2005/2006 Republican update to it). So the idea that Republicans “had to” do what they did with redistricting because of Section 5 is laughable. Section 5 permitted them to do what they did – and doing it that way served their political interest (this is politics afterall) but there are many other approaches which also would have complied with Section 5. For the record, from a non-political pro-Georgia standpoint, I don’t believe a 2001 style or 2011 style redistricting (really they are different sides of the same coin) are in the best interest of the state.

Chris Huttman February 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm

As another comment, here’s what it is so hard to have a rules based redistricting process codified into law. Take Charlie’s idea that a county larger than a Congressional district should always contain a Congressional district. If you start drawing whole Congressional districts first in big counties, you’re going to end up with other districts that snake through the remnant parts, including in some areas counties that are much smaller than a Congressional district. County A (larger than a Congressional district) might argue that it needs a Congressional district based on the county – but what about the people in that county that are left out and in some other district? County B (smaller than a Congressional district) is likely to end up split because of this line drawing process, but wouldn’t their argument and desire for unity be as strong as County A’s, afterall we are all equal under the law when it comes to this stuff and numerous court rulings.

As far as nesting districts goes, it works great in a place like Iowa where basically everyone is the same and the counties are already shaped like squares. Makes less sense here. And I kind of like the idea of differently drawn maps for the house and senate, or else you’re just kind of having the same people represented twice and why not just go to a unicameral legislature at that point?

My ideal way to do redistricting would be to somehow figure out some way of basically adopting the whole you cut the cookie but I get to pick what slice I get. Since I can’t wrap my head around exactly how that would be done, I favor a bipartisan commission or having a court draw the districts. I also recognize that you can’t completely take politics out of redistricting, but there are issues of fairness. I think, for example, that in a large enough body, if one party can win 55% of the votes statewide, they aren’t playing on a fair map if they wouldn’t also be able to win 50% of the districts. From that standpoint, I think Georgia’s maps are unfair, and a future court would potentially nullify them – seeing as Democrats win something like 45% of the vote on average here but have fewer than 33% of the seats, it clearly seems unfair to 45% of the voters that they have enough heft to for instance block a constitutional amendment but don’t have a representation that allows them to actually do that.

The problem for Democrats of course is that courts (rightfully in my opinion) aren’t going to pick Georgia as a test case since we aren’t actually winning majorities. But there are other states, Florida, Pennsylvania to name a few, where Democrats do win majorities consistently and are completely shut out of the legislative process because of gerrymandering, and so a court could be more willing to say that there is a harm being done there that needs to be redressed, meaning a standard could emerge that could eventually help Democrats here. Of course, all we need to do is win the Governor’s race in 2018 and going forward, our maps would be a lot more fair than they are now and have been in the past.

Andre February 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm

As was noted in today’s Morning Reads, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act presumes covered jurisdictions guilty of voter disenfranchisement until innocence is proven.

New municipalities like Brookhaven, Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Milton and Peachtree Corners –jurisdictions that did not exist when the Voting Rights Act was enacted– are presumed to have a history of voter disenfranchisement even though their history only dates back eight years at most.

Counties like Calhoun, Clay, Clayton, Dougherty, Hancock, Macon, Randolph, Terrell and Warren; counties that had majority white populations in 1965, and now have majority black populations exceeding sixty percent are also presumed guilty of voter disenfranchisement until proven innocent.

Section 5 punishes the living for the sins of the dead. Then-state Senator Mark Taylor, during a redistricting debate in the 90s, reputedly told his colleagues to support a set of maps “if they were tired of paying for the sins of their fathers and their grandfathers.”

The true unfairness of Section 5 has folks in Clayton County paying for the sins of people they had no role electing in the first place. The people who returned Victor Hill to the sheriff’s office did not enact rules disenfranchising voters, so why should they have to continue to seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department?

Section 5 is unfair and it should be overturned or applied equally to all fifty states.

Max Power February 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Charlie, the VRA was not created to “to ensure that black voters would be able to elect black representatives.” Rather that stems from a reinterpretation of the VRA in 1982, an interpretation fully supported by Reagan’s DOJ with the intended effect of decimating white southern democrats.

Ed February 28, 2013 at 2:22 pm

So Charlie, my “community of interest” would require a tremendous amount of gerry–no, “line drawing” to get anything accurate. (Never mind my specific ‘hood is evenly split yuppies, hipsters, rednecks, African Americans and hispanics, 50/50 poor, what is our “interest”?).

Do you go south toward Mechanicsville, Peoplestown etc? Because that means half the neighborhood (and surrounding parts of Grant Park) are now in a poor black district. What about up to Inman Park? Then you leave out the lower-income residents. Then you have Cabbagetown which fits almost nothing…

Basically my point is, when you start looking at “communities of interest” you see the only way to get such a “community” is by ger–I did it again–line drawing with “arbitrary” divisions. So, basically, what they’re doing now.

Charlie February 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I don’t think we’re looking at “community of interest” with the same meaning.

There was a time when political jurisdictions used to matter. The economic concept of voting with your feet made that matter.

If we were to go back to lines of political jurisdiction becoming the first priority when redrawing maps, which a descending order of importance (and then allowing for a +5/-5% population vairance to allow communities to be held together), you would have local delegations mean something.

Not only would Fulton (and Cobb, Gwinnett, maybe DeKalb) have their “own” Congress person, but cities would have essentially their own state senator(s) and state rep(s) becuase they too would be contained within those same boundaries.

Think about the “local legislation” that is about to carve up Fulton. There will be a lot of people voting on that that don’t live in Fulton, and whose interests frankly are contrary to Fulton’s.

The same can be said for neighboring Fayette (or at least was under the old maps). The local delegation was majority Democratic despite the county being one of the most solidly Republican during the 2000′s. This was largely because of the small fingers of state House districts that came into the north part of the County where Reps lived in Clayton and Fulton.

Going to a model which puts hard rules on district lines based on existing political jurisdictions makes it where actual, legal communities are held together, regardless of their racial makeup – and takes much of the ability to discriminate out of the picture while reaffirming that local governments and the communities they serve matter.

Dave Bearse March 1, 2013 at 12:11 am

The current informal Georgia House standard is +1/-1%. +5/-5% is too much for my liking. About split the difference +2.5%/-2.5% or +3/-3%, and that’s if the feds will go for it. (It’s my understanding the one man-one vote court ruling/principle was in response to Georgia’s County unit system.)

It needs to be considered that municipal boundaries themselves are in a manner of speaking gerrymandered. Take a close look at the city limits of Fitzgerald for example (though Fitzgerald I expect is an economic, not political gerrymander). Or closer to home and more in the news watch the gerrymandering attempts, i.e. a relatively thin miles long finger of apartments and townhomes along the Gwinnett County line to remain unincorporated DeKalb occuring in the case of the proposed City of Lakeside, that may political as well as economic.

Ed March 1, 2013 at 7:10 am

I think your missing the point of my example but its ancillary to my overall point; chiefly that I think you’re using an out-dated and also arbitrary definition of “community of interest.” I mean, I’m not entirely sure what benefit there is to have, say, all of Fulton in one CD other than to have things in a neat little package. I don’t need to go over how vastly different South Fulton is from North Fulton to the point where they’re not going to seek anything similar from their reps.

If you truly want to have districts that have a singular voice that can be truly well represented, then the best way to do it is to use science to figure out where each sliver of a population is located that shares a similar, broad ideology, which will likely end up in a Rep getting around 60-70% each election. Oh wait–they already do that now.

Charlie March 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

My point is that the definition is not arbitrary nor if it were actually used and preserved would it be out-dated. See my comment below to Dave as to why.

joe February 28, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Add to your proposal a state requirement for residency within the district for 2 or more years, and you have something that might work.

SallyForth February 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Ed, you lucky dawg – sounds like you have a district that is the all-American melting pot of people. The other 179 districts in Georgia should be so lucky. Take a look at the the state map and the ATL metro map. You will find long skinny districts that snake from north to south in some of the metro counties and some that ramble into parts of two or more counties, use land bridges, etc., encompassing areas that have no mutual neighborhood interests whatsoever. You will find neighborhood associations divided up into several different districts, where none of their unique interests are served. Districts all around the state defy the imagination of what a geographically-drawn map would be.

Even a school child with a box of crayons could draw clumps of voters that meet the numerical requirements better than what we presently have. It is a disgrace to all Georgians.

Dave Bearse February 28, 2013 at 11:42 pm

I like the approach but I think the proposal details too rigid to work.

I’m not sure about the 3 House in one Senate District. Will Senators wield excessive influence with respect to the selection of a successor?

Charlie March 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

I think it is balanced with the power that would return to local power structures via grassroots involvement. Right now, the way districts are drawn, the paths for which local efforts escalate upwards diffuse quickly across multiple power structures. This makes the state reps much more accountable to specific local folks, the Senators attuned to the activities of just a few reps, the Congressmen paying special attention to just a few Senators, etc.

In short, it makes it a lot easier for the folks at the bottom to influence those at the top if the lines are linear.

Ed March 1, 2013 at 9:05 am

This is a legitimate complaint. Would be interested to see if there are any studies that quantify the impact.

Chris Huttman March 1, 2013 at 9:50 am

Why not just go to the New Jersey model and let the mayor of Newark run for the state Senate seat in Newark so he can fully represent the city then?

So again let’s look at Fulton and Fayette. Need about 691k for a Congressional district. Fulton has 921 – excess of 230. Let’s say you start at the north end of the county and draw down until you get to 691k. Now you start a new Congressional district in South Fulton, where can you go – why let’s go to Clayton, now we’re at 489, so add Fayette, now we’re 96,000 short. Go over and get some of Coweta and we’ve got a nice little Congressional district.

Now the people in Fayette and Coweta would rage about being in this Democratic Congressional district, and the people in North Fulton would likely rage about being represented by someone from Atlanta. Is this better than the current way of doing things – maybe – but other than the cleanliness and feeling warm and fuzzy about respecting county lines (the legislature clearly doesn’t, see repeated attempts to carve up Fulton) I don’t really see the benefit for having this be the #1 redistricting principle overriding all others.

Dave Bearse March 2, 2013 at 1:13 am

Your hypothetical Fulton-based Congressional District perhaps not necessarily be represented by someone from Atlanta. The combined population of Milton, Johns Creek, Alpharetta, Roswell and Sandy Springs is about 350,000. I think the district would be very competitive, even lean a little GOP, considering that Buckhead would be a significant part of the part of the district within Atlanta.

The benefit of a local government boundary-based system is that such as system is superior to the #1 principle of the current redistricting priniciple of drawing districts to maximize the power of political parties and select politicians.

Southwest Atlanta and Fayetteville are indeed rather different worlds, but Charlie’s proposal is directed primarily at the micro level where people more or less do live in the same world. The people on one side of Decatur for the most part are in the same world as those on the other. Decatur, a city of 20,000 that would easily fit in a single GA House District is instead in 3 (or 4!) House Districts. (Dunwoody, the largest city in DeKalb with twice the population of Decatur is all in the same district, natch, while Dunwoody neighbors Doraville and Chamblee that each have only one-quarter of Dunwoody’s population are in multiple districts.) District 84, part of which is in Decatur, is the gerrymander poster child. District 84 is basically one precinct wide and 18 precincts long—laid end to end in a string from west of Clarkston south through Decatur to the Henry County line.

Section V mandated districts one precinct wide and 18 long. Lawyer Ed Lindsey who is on the House Ethics Committee told us so, so it must be true.

dr.darius March 1, 2013 at 9:50 am

Dr. Charles Bullock, Political Science Professor at the University of Georgia, has several great books on this. The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South is particularly good and sheds light on section v specifically, to measure if it is still effective. I won’t give you a spoiler, but his analysis are posted online. Definitely worth giving a read, very insightful. I was fortunate enough to have him as a professor during my time in school and can attest to his prolific and in depth knowledge on the subject.

saltycracker March 1, 2013 at 11:51 am

I believe Charlie is on a path of objectiveness and equal treatment. The sorting out of why folks live where they do or trying to pin down a highly changing people is subjective.

Districting should base from impersonal standards: neighborhoods/zip codes/towns/cities/trade areas or geographical boundaries/states.

There are issues with even this approach, but they are eaiser to deal with than trying to follow classifications of people.

To fix those, Legislators can focus on minimizing gerrymandering in the political subdivisions like city expansion via jurisdiction shopping or inefficient low population cities and counties.

John Konop March 3, 2013 at 10:50 am

Agree

Dave Bearse March 12, 2013 at 1:51 am

I learned today that Minnesota has a Senate-House system similar to your proposal. Each MN Senate district is subdivided into two House districts (instead of the three you proposed), with “A” or “B” appended to the district number to distinguish the two.

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