RALEIGH – Yes, the United States Congress should renew the federal Voting Rights Act. But no, it should not be renewed as is, with no changes and no recognition that today’s challenges and opportunities are different than those we faced decades ago.
Predictably, there has been a furious outcry against the small number of House Republicans who objected to a fast track for VRA renewal a few weeks ago. They’ve been accused of racism, extremism, and just out-and-out nastiness. The substance of one of their objections, however, was quite legitimate: provisions added to the VRA in 1975 that have mandated foreign-language ballots. These were wrongheaded in the 1970s and are truly abhorrent today, as a surge of immigration has focused intense public interest on whether our institutions of assimilation are working as well as they should.
While fixing the bill to offer virtually all ballots in English would be a good start, I’d like to see Congress address some other legitimate concerns about the VRA. Many of them stem from 1982 changes that, at least according to some legal interpretations, require state legislatures to draw congressional and legislative districts largely on grounds of racial solidarity. The changes were the result of a not-so-subtle alliance between the NAACP and the Republican Party. The GOP expected that requiring more majority-minority districts would essentially work to pack Democratically leaning voters into those districts, making the surrounding districts more competitive for Republican candidates.
Despite some principled objections from conservatives (and liberals) to this strategy, it prevailed. And it largely succeeded, at least in the short run. In Southern states, the trend towards GOP strength in Congress strengthened after the VRA-influenced redistricting plans took hold. There were five black congressmen in 1990. After redistricting in 1991 based on the new rules, it took only two cycles for African-American candidates to win 17 seats in 1994. At the same time, though, GOP seats in the South went from 42 in 1990 to 68 in 1994.
It “worked” so “well” that some Democrats and black political leaders had second-thoughts and began proposing even more ridiculous interpretations of voting rights that suggested both high and low concentrations of black voters in districts could be considered illegal, that it was impossible to tell ahead of time what such a standard should be, and that the standard should likely be adjusted over time (by judges primarily) to maximize blacks’ ability to elect Democrats, whether white or black.
This was a sort of Goldilocks interpretation of race-based redistricting, only Goldilocks was presumed to be unelected judges doing the bidding of political activists and their attorneys. The resulting mess is simply impossible to sort out fairly and wisely without Congressional action.
I am not sure what the right answer is here, though I’m sure that the current answer is wrong. There should be some renewed protections against legislatures manipulating the districts to keep blacks and other minorities from voting in members of their own ethnic group to a state’s delegation if that’s what they wish to do. But this should not be mixed up with partisan objectives, R or D. I think multi-member districts or cumulative voting would be preferable to the current approach.
I am also sure of this much: the redistricting wars have yielded a situation where blacks are taken for granted by Democrats and Republicans take for granted that there’s no point competing for black voters. For black candidates to enjoy more success in statewide elections, I believe they’ll need ways and incentives to broaden their appeal. Similarly, Republicans will have a hard time sustaining their political momentum in the future unless they learn how to appeal more to blacks and other minorities. Neither will happen if the current racial engineering of political districts escapes reform.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.