Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Changing Face of the VRA

Interesting NYT column on the evolving effect and use of the Voting Rights Act. The VRA, representation, and redistricting happen to be specialty areas of mine - so I love a good discussion . . . .

The creation of black-majority districts was necessary when the Democratic Party had a monopoly in the South, and whites would almost never vote for blacks. But since 1990, districting deals between Republicans and black Democrats have led to political mischief. Shepherding black voters into black districts left other districts lily-white - and skewed to the right. You saw the consequences in 1994, when the House came under Republican control.

In Georgia and elsewhere, there has been a clash between what the constitutional scholar Richard Pildes calls "descriptive" and "substantive" representation. Descriptive representation is centered on the symbolism of skin: a black face for a black constituency. But it came at the cost of substantive representation - the likelihood that lawmakers, taken as a whole, would represent the group's substantive interests. Blacks were winning battles but losing the war as conservative Republicans beat white moderate Democrats.

Still, Georgia v. Ashcroft - finally settled in favor of the Georgia Democrats by the Supreme Court - is really a symptom of a bigger problem: not racial districting but partisan districting. "The United States is the only country that places the power to draw election districts in the hands of self-interested political actors," Mr. Pildes says. "The joke is that the voters don't really choose the candidates; the candidates choose their voters." . . . .

In 2007, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is set to expire and Congress will have to decide how to respond. After years of race- and party-based redistricting, two things seem likely. There'll be many black faces in the House - and the Republicans will be
running the place.
He's right about the changing use of the VRA. It's less about color and more about party - and, though not mentioned here, increasingly about party framed by different colors. It's not a stretch to say that some of the groups traditionally protected by the VRA are none too happy to see it used for the benefit of emerging minority powerhouses.

Redistricting reform - that is, real reform, not Ted Costa reform - is the key to restoring moderate, deliberative, reasonable government at the state and federal levels. I used to be a gung-ho supporter of political redistricting. Until I worked for the Legislature. Now I get it. It protects not just the voters, but the parties from the worst of their own.

The column is fairly, uh, fair in showing how all sides use the VRA to their advantage: either protecting the status quo or growing your ranks.

It may be time to look closely at the intentions and the realities of the VRA and its most powerful sections. Over time, most legislation can transform from a defensive weapon to an offensive one.

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