Friday, June 02, 2006

Gerrymandering Is About More Than Race

I'm not enough of a statistician to evaluate the math-based claims in this New Republic article about "the gerrymandering myth." The authors assert that gerrymandering does not appear to be the primary cause of the decreased competitiveness of Congressional seats in recent years. They also say that the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act--due to expire in 2007--have reduced the power of partisan Republicans to gerrymander by forcing strict scrutiny of redistricting plans that reduce minority representation.

For these reasons, they recommend that Democrats not invest their energy or money in reform efforts designed to thwart gerrymandering. Money quote:

[T]hough the independent commissions sought by [anti-gerrymandering] activists might eliminate the ills of gerrymandering once and for all, support on the ground is still very thin--as voters in California, Florida, and Ohio have made clear. Furthermore, such work must progress state by state, so that complete protection by 2011 (when states must next redistrict) is highly unlikely.

Instead, these well-intentioned groups should direct their energies toward Congress and the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The Act is fundamental in ensuring minority representation in Congress. Without it, gerrymanderers armed with sophisticated technology and facing few real constraints could run wild, causing minority representation in Congress to shrink dramatically. And that would be much more troublesome than a high incumbent reelection rate.
I'm all for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. But isn't there a huge potential downside for Democrats in relying on that law to combat Republican manipulation of Congressional lines? To exaggerate slightly, if the only Democratic seats that are safe from extinction are minority seats, don't we run the risk of having our party increasingly stereotyped in the minds of white voters as "the Black party"?

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud that minority-group members gravitate to the Democratic party, and we should do all we can to continue to deserve their support. (There are currently 40 Black members of Congress, every one of them a Democrat. They represent about one fifth of the total Democratic caucus.) But we need to keep fighting, legally and politically, to protect the Congressional representation of all Democrats, not just those who happen to be members of a racial minority group.

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