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HOW SHE SEES IT District lines now govern elections



Published: Sat, August 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ROBYN BLUMNER

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

In today's politics, how the lines are drawn is even more important than how much money you raise.

Nearly 90 percent of all Americans live in congressional districts where the election is preordained and pro forma. Who will win has already been decided by a bunch of partisan cartographers using redistricting software that can predict residential voting patterns block by block.

Partisan gerrymandering means voters no longer get to do the choosing. The victor has been chosen for them.

This is finally dawning on campaign reformers, who have spent entirely too much energy trying to stanch the flow of money into politics (a task about as realistic as emptying the oceans with a spoon). Their efforts are now turning to democratizing our republic by giving the line-drawing authority to someone other than partisan legislators, something only 12 states currently do. Redistricting ballot initiatives are being pushed in California, Florida and at least six other states.

These are vital reforms. I can't think of a better way to bring more moderate and responsible voices into politics than for there to be real races in the general election. Partisan gerrymandering has redirected nearly all the "contest" part of contested elections to the primary, where candidates compete to appeal to the most extreme party loyalists. If you wonder how our nation became so bitterly divided and ideologically riven, here's the recipe.

Another culprit, I'm sorry to say, has been the impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose 40th anniversary is today. As vital as the act has been in breathing life into the 15th Amendment and giving African-Americans access to the voting booth, it has also had the ironic consequence of undermining African-American influence and political interests.

Black voting strength

Following a 1982 amendment that was intended to address the use of at-large districting and other tactics employed to dilute black voting strength, courts started encouraging the consolidation of black constituents into "majority-minority" districts. The approach has helped add black faces to Congress, but has also "bleached" the remaining districts, leaving politicians with few minority voters to care about.

Because African-Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic, another side effect of clustering black voters into one district is that it strips Democratic voters from neighboring districts in a way that can give a political advantage to Republican candidates.

In fact, pushing "max-black" districts was a blatant strategy devised by the Republican Party's master race-baiter, Lee Atwater, who died in 1991. His idea was to have Republicans in the South join forces with black Democrats after the 1990 census to demand new majority-minority districts. The nonprofit organization Fairness for the '90s was created by the Republican National Committee and conservative foundations to provide expensive redistricting software to black groups seeking reapportionment.

The plot was brilliant. It used a progressive law to handicap the Democratic Party and drive a wedge between the party and its most loyal constituents --African-Americans -- who saw the Democrats' resistance to racial reapportionment as racist.

The result was significant gains for African-Americans in Congress, but at the expense of white Democrats. In 1992, 16 black freshmen congressmen were elected, with 12 of those coming from the South. But at the same time, Democrats in the South collectively lost 12 seats that year. Another 16 Democratic seats were given up in 1994. It was enough to turn the House over to Republican control for the first time in 40 years. Obviously, many factors occasioned this shift, but herding black voters into single districts was one of them.

Form of apartheid

The Supreme Court has since put an end to the worst excesses of the "max-black" strategy, calling racial gerrymandering a form of apartheid. But race and ethnicity remain a significant factor when districts are drawn.

I believe that African-American voters are seriously disserved by this and would be far better off if a broad range of elected officials had them as a core constituency that could make or break the next election. However, to comfortably move beyond majority-minority districts, there needs to be evidence that white voters will elect a black candidate. I actually think that time has come. The popularity of Colin Powell when he was contemplating a run for president suggests that African-American politicians can have wide appeal; and Barack Obama recently won a statewide race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. That's progress.




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