Republicans—to protect and expand their gains from 2010— are diluting the minority vote in swing districts held by white Democrats.
February 4, 2012 |
Photo Credit: kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop) via Flickr
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
North Carolina State Senator Eric Mansfield was born in 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote for African-Americans. He grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and moved to North Carolina when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. He became an Army doctor, opening a practice in Fayetteville after leaving the service. Mansfield says he was always “very cynical about politics” but decided to run for office in 2010 after being inspired by Barack Obama’s presidential run.
He ran a grassroots campaign in the Obama mold, easily winning the election with 67 percent of the vote. He represented a compact section of northwest Fayetteville that included Fort Bragg and the most populous areas of the city. It was a socioeconomically diverse district, comprising white and black and rich and poor sections of the city. Though his district had a black voting age population (BVAP) of 45 percent, Mansfield, who is African-American, lives in an old, affluent part of town that he estimates is 90 percent white. Many of his neighbors are also his patients.
But after the 2010 census and North Carolina’s once-per-decade redistricting process—which Republicans control by virtue of winning the state’s General Assembly for the first time since the McKinley administration—Mansfield’s district looks radically different. It resembles a fat squid, its large head in an adjoining rural county with little in common with Mansfield’s previously urban district, and its long tentacles reaching exclusively into the black neighborhoods of Fayetteville. The BVAP has increased from 45 to 51 percent, as white voters were surgically removed from the district and placed in a neighboring Senate district represented by a white Republican whom GOP leaders want to protect in 2012. Mansfield’s own street was divided in half, and he no longer represents most of the people in his neighborhood. His new district spans 350 square miles, roughly the distance from Fayetteville to Atlanta. Thirty-three voting precincts in his district have been divided to accommodate the influx of new black voters. “My district has never elected a nonminority state senator, even though minorities were never more than 45 percent of the vote,” Mansfield says. “I didn’t need the help. I was doing OK.”
Mansfield’s district is emblematic of how the redistricting process has changed the political complexion of North Carolina, as Republicans attempt to turn this racially integrated swing state into a GOP bastion, with white Republicans in the majority and black Democrats in the minority for the next decade. “We’re having the same conversations we had forty years ago in the South, that black people can only represent black people and white people can only represent white people,” says Mansfield. “I’d hope that in 2012 we’d have grown better than that.” Before this year, for example, there were no Senate districts with a BVAP of 50 percent or higher. Now there are nine. A lawsuit filed by the NAACP and other advocacy groups calls the redistricting maps “an intentional and cynical use of race that exceeds what is required to ensure fairness to previously disenfranchised racial minority voters.”
And it’s not just happening in North Carolina. In virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.” The GOP’s long-term goal is to enshrine a system of racially polarized voting that will make it harder for Democrats to win races on local, state, federal and presidential levels. Four years after the election of Barack Obama, which offered the promise of a new day of postracial politics in states like North Carolina, Republicans are once again employing a Southern Strategy that would make Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater proud.
The consequences of redistricting in North Carolina—one of the most important swing states in the country—could determine who controls Congress and the presidency in 2012. Democrats hold seven of the state’s thirteen Congressional seats, but after redistricting they could control only three—the largest shift for Republicans at the Congressional level in any state this year. Though Obama won eight of the thirteen districts, under the new maps his vote would be contained in only three heavily Democratic districts—all of which would have voted 68 percent or higher for the president in 2008—while the rest of the districts would have favored John McCain by 55 percent or more. “GOP candidates could win just over half of the statewide vote for Congress and end up with 62 percent to 77 percent of the seats,” found John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation.
The same holds true at the state level, where only 10 percent of state legislative races can be considered a tossup. “If these maps hold, Republicans have a solid majority plus a cushion in the North Carolina House and Senate,” says J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College. “They don’t even need to win the swing districts.” North Carolina is now a political paradox: a presidential swing state with few swing districts. Republicans have turned what Bitzer calls an “aberration”—the Tea Party wave of 2010—“into the norm.”
Republicans accomplished this remarkable feat by drawing half the state’s black population of 2.2 million people, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, into a fifth of all legislative and Congressional districts. As a result, black voters are twice as likely as white voters to see their communities divided. “The new North Carolina legislative lines take the cake for the most grotesquely drawn districts I’ve ever seen,” says Jeff Wice, a Democratic redistricting lawyer in Washington.
According to data compiled by Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, precincts that are 90 percent white have a 3 percent chance of being split, and precincts that are 80 percent black have a 12 percent chance of being split, but precincts with a BVAP between 15 and 45 percent have a 40 percent chance of being split. Republicans “systematically moved [street] blocks in or out of their precincts on the basis of their race,” found Ted Arrington, a redistricting expert at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “No other explanation is possible given the statistical data.” Such trends reflect not just a standard partisan gerrymander but an attack on the very idea of integration. In one example, Senate redistricting chair Bob Rucho admitted that Democratic State Senator Linda Garrou was drawn out of her plurality African-American district in Winston-Salem and into an overwhelmingly white Republican district simply because she is white. “The districts here take us back to a day of segregation that most of us thought we’d moved away from,” says State Senator Dan Blue Jr., who in the 1990s was the first African-American Speaker of the North Carolina House.
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Nationwide, Republicans have a major advantage in redistricting heading into the November elections. The party controls the process in twenty states, including key swing states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Wisconsin, compared with seven for Democrats (the rest are home to either a split government or independent redistricting commissions). Republicans control more than four times as many seats at the Congressional level, including two-thirds of the seventy most competitive races of 2010.
This gives the GOP a major opportunity to build on its gains from 2010. Today GOP Representative Paul Ryan, nobody’s idea of a moderate, represents the median House district in America based on party preference, according to Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. That district will become two points more Republican after the current redistricting cycle. “The fact of a Republican wave election on the eve of redistricting means that Republican legislators are in far better shape to shore up that wave,” says Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert at Loyola Law School. Though public dissatisfaction with GOP members of Congress is at an all-time high, Republican dominance of the redistricting process could prove an insurmountable impediment to Democratic hopes of retaking the House, where the GOP now has a fifty-one-seat edge. Speaker of the House John Boehner predicts that the GOP’s redistricting advantage will allow the party to retain control of the House, perhaps for the next decade.
Aside from protecting vulnerable freshmen, which would count as a major victory even if the GOP didn’t pick up any new seats, the party’s biggest gains will come in the South. Though the region has trended Republican at the presidential level for decades, Democrats managed to hang on to the Statehouses (which draw the redistricting maps in most states) for a remarkable stretch of time. Before 2010, Democrats controlled five Statehouses (in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina) and one chamber in two (Kentucky and Virginia). Two years later, Republicans control every Southern Statehouse except the Arkansas legislature and Kentucky House.
Race has always been at the center of the Southern Strategy, though not always in ways you’d expect. In addition to pushing hot-button issues like busing and welfare to appeal to white voters, Southern Republicans formed an “unholy alliance” with black Southern Democrats when it came to redistricting. In the 1980s and ’90s, when white Democrats ruled the Statehouses, Republicans supported new majority-minority districts for black Democrats in select urban and rural areas in exchange for an increased GOP presence elsewhere, especially in fast-growing metropolitan suburbs. With Democrats grouped in fewer areas, Republicans found it easier to target white Democrats for extinction. Ben Ginsberg, a prominent GOP election lawyer, memorably termed the strategy “Project Ratfuck.”
Republicans prepared for the 2010 election with an eye toward replicating and expanding this strategy. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) unveiled the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) in 2010 to target Statehouse races and put Republicans in charge of redistricting efforts following the election. Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee, became the group’s chair, while Chris Jankowski, a corporate lobbyist in Virginia, handled day-to-day operations. The group, which as a tax-exempt 527 could accept unlimited corporate donations, became the self-described “lead Republican Redistricting organization,” taking over many of the functions of the RNC. The RSLC attracted six- and seven-figure donations from the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce, tobacco companies Altria and Reynolds American, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Karl Rove–founded American Crossroads and the American Justice Partnership, a conservative legal group that has been a partner of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a state-based conservative advocacy group. Funding from these corporate interests allowed the RSLC to spend $30 million on state races in 2010, including $1.2 million in North Carolina.
One of the group’s largest funders in North Carolina was Art Pope, a furniture magnate who has bankrolled much of the state’s conservative movement. Pope’s Variety Wholesalers gave $36,500 to the RSLC in July 2010. The RSLC then gave $1.25 million to a group called Real Jobs NC to run attack ads against Democrats. In total, Pope and Pope-supported entities spent $2.2 million on twenty-two state legislative races, winning eighteen. After the election, the GOP redistricting committees hired the RSLC’s redistricting expert, Tom Hofeller, to redraw North Carolina’s districts. He was paid with state dollars through the General Assembly budget. (Hofeller says he has also been “intensely involved” in this cycle’s redistricting process in Alabama, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia.)
Pope has long been “the moving force behind Republican redistricting efforts in North Carolina,” says Dan Blue Jr. (Pope says he supports an independent state redistricting commission.) In 1992 Pope urged Blue, then Statehouse Speaker, to create twenty-six majority-minority districts. Blue refused, creating nineteen instead. Pope then sued him. “He seemed to believe that African-Americans were required to be represented by African-Americans,” Blue says. Twenty years later, Hofeller enacted Pope’s strategy. “The best recent example of success is in North Carolina,” the RSLC wrote in a July 2011 blog post.
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The strategy was repeated in other Southern states including Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina, as Republicans created new majority-minority districts at the state level as a means to pack Democrats into as few as possible. They also increased the BVAP in existing majority-minority Congressional districts held by Democrats like Jim Clyburn in South Carolina and Bobby Scott in Virginia, who have occupied their seats for almost two decades.
Yet this year, unlike in past cycles, the unholy alliance between white Republicans and black Democrats has dissolved. Stacey Abrams, the first African-American leader of the Georgia House, denounced the GOP plan to create seven new majority-minority districts in the Statehouse but eliminate the seats of nearly half the white Democrats. “Republicans intentionally targeted white Democrats, thinking that as an African-American leader I wouldn’t fight against these maps because I got an extra number of black seats,” she says. “I’m not the chair of the ‘black caucus.’ I’m the leader of the Democratic caucus. And the Democratic caucus has to be racially integrated in order to be reflective of the state.” Under the new GOP maps, Abrams says, “we will have the greatest number of minority seats in Georgia history and the least amount of power in modern history.”
Democrats accounted for 47 percent of the statewide vote in Georgia in 2008 and 2010 but, thanks to redistricting, can elect just 31 percent of Statehouse members. Abrams is especially upset that Republicans pitted incumbent white Democrats against incumbent black Democrats in four House districts in Atlanta, which she sees as an attempt to divide the party through ugly racial politics. “They placed whites who represented majority-minority districts against blacks who represented majority-minority districts and enhanced the number of minority voters in those districts in order to wipe the white Democrats out,” she explains. The new districts slither across the metropolis to pick up as many black voters as possible. Abrams says the new maps “look like a bunch of snakes that got run over.”
The same thing happened in the Georgia Senate, where Republicans targeted State Senator George Hooks, who has been in the body since 1991 and is known as the “dean of the Senate.” Hooks represented the peanut farming country of rural Southwest Georgia, including Plains, the hometown of Jimmy Carter. Republicans dismantled his district, which had a BVAP of 43 percent, and created a new GOP district in North Georgia with a BVAP of 8 percent. They moved the black voters in his district into two adjoining majority-minority districts and two white Republican districts, and pitted Hooks against an incumbent black Democrat in a district that is 59 percent black. His political career is likely finished.
The GOP similarly took aim at Representative John Barrow, the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the US House. Republicans increased the BVAP in three of the four majority-minority Congressional districts represented by Georgia Democrats but decreased the BVAP from 42 to 33 percent in Barrow’s east Georgia seat, moving 41,000 African-Americans in Savannah out of his district. Just to be sure, they also drew Barrow’s home out of the district as well. Based on population shifts—Georgia gained one new seat from the 2010 census—the district could have become a new majority-minority district, but instead it’s much whiter and thus solidly Republican.
As a consequence of redistricting, Republicans could control ten of Georgia’s fourteen Congressional districts, up from eight in 2010, and could hold a two-thirds majority in the State Legislature, which would allow the party to pass constitutional amendments without a single Democratic vote. When the dust settles, Georgia and North Carolina could send twenty Republicans, five black Democrats and two white Democrats to the US House. That’s a generous number of Democrats compared with Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, which each have only one Democratic Representative in Congress—all of them black, from majority-minority districts.
In 1949 white Democrats controlled 103 of 105 House seats in the former Confederacy. Today the number is sixteen of 131, and it could reach single digits after 2012. “I should be stuffed and put in a museum when I pass away,” says Representative Steve Cohen, a white Democrat who represents a majority-minority district in Memphis, “and people can say, ‘Yes, a white Southern Democrat once lived here.’”
Unlike the Republican Party, which is 95 percent white in states like Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the Democratic Party can thrive only as a multiracial coalition. The elimination of white Democrats has also crippled the political aspirations of black Democrats. According to a recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, only 4.8 percent of black state legislators in the South serve in the majority. “Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era,” the report found. Sadly, the report came out before all the redistricting changes had gone into effect. By the end of this cycle, Republicans in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee could have filibuster-proof majorities in their legislatures, and most white Democrats in Alabama and Mississippi (which haven’t completed redistricting yet) could be wiped out.
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Texas, a state not known for subtlety, chose to ignore its rapidly growing minority population altogether. One of four majority-minority states, Texas grew by 4.3 million people between 2000 and 2010, two-thirds of them Hispanics and 11 percent black. As a result, the state gained four Congressional seats this cycle. Yet the number of seats to which minority voters could elect a candidate declined, from eleven to ten. As a result, Republicans will pick up three of the four new seats. “The Texas plan is by far the most extreme example of racial gerrymandering among all the redistricting proposals passed by lawmakers so far this year,” says Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters.
As in the rest of the South, the new lines were drawn by white Republicans with no minority input. As the maps were drafted, Eric Opiela, counsel to the state’s Congressional Republicans, referred to key sections of the Voting Rights Act as “hocus-pocus.” Last year the Justice Department found that the state’s Congressional and Statehouse plans violated Section 5 of the VRA by “diminishing the ability of citizens of the United States, on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” (Texas has lost more Section 5 enforcement suits than any other state.)
Only by reading the voluminous lawsuits filed against the state can one appreciate just how creative Texas Republicans had to be to so successfully dilute and suppress the state’s minority vote. According to a lawsuit filed by a host of civil rights groups, “even though Whites’ share of the population declined from 52 percent to 45 percent, they remain the majority in 70 percent of Congressional Districts.” To cite just one of many examples: in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Hispanic population increased by 440,898, the African-American population grew by 152,825 and the white population fell by 156,742. Yet white Republicans, a minority in the metropolis, control four of five Congressional seats. Despite declining in population, white Republicans managed to pick up two Congressional seats in the Dallas and Houston areas. In fact, whites are the minority in the state’s five largest counties but control twelve of nineteen Congressional districts.
Based on these disturbing facts, a DC District Court invalidated the state’s maps and ordered a three-judge panel in San Antonio to draw new ones that better accounted for Texas’s minority population, which improved Democratic prospects. The Supreme Court, however, recently ruled that the San Antonio court must use the state’s maps as the basis for the new districts, at least until a separate three-judge panel in Washington decides whether the maps violate the VRA. Final arguments will take place January 31, in a case that could have far-reaching ramifications for the rights of minority voters not just in Texas but across the South.
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In a recent speech about voting rights at the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Attorney General Eric Holder noted that “no fewer than five lawsuits” are challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which he called the “keystone of our voting rights laws.” Section 5 requires that states covered by the act receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a three-judge District Court in Washington for any election law changes that affect minority voters.
Conservatives want to scrub this requirement. In a 2009 decision, the Supreme Court stopped short of declaring Section 5 unconstitutional but asserted that “the Act’s preclearance requirements and its coverage formula raise serious constitutional questions.” Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent, sought to abolish Section 5, arguing that intentional discrimination in voting “no longer exists.” But in September a US District Court judge dismissed a challenge to Section 5, writing that it “remains a ‘congruent and proportional remedy’ to the 21st century problem of voting discrimination in covered jurisdictions.” Voting rights experts expect the Supreme Court to address this issue in the coming year.
Meanwhile, just as they’re seeking to declare Section 5 unconstitutional, Republicans are also invoking the VRA as a justification for isolating minority voters. “There’s no question that’s an unintended consequence,” says Jankowski of the RSLC (which takes no position on Section 5). “Republicans benefit from the requirement of these majority-minority districts. It has hurt the Democratic Party’s ability to compete in the South.” But Kareem Crayton, a redistricting expert at the UNC School of Law, argues that Republicans “clearly decided to ignore what federal law requires,” noting that “a party that doesn’t like federal mandates all of a sudden getting religion and talking about the importance of federal voting rights is more than a little ironic.”
The VRA states that lawmakers must not diminish the ability of minority voters to participate in the political process or elect a candidate of their choice. “There’s nothing out there that says a state can’t draw a 42 percent black district instead of a 50 percent black district as long as black voters still have the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice,” argues Paul Smith, a prominent redistricting lawyer at Jenner & Block in Washington. The VRA, in other words, did not compel Republicans to pack minority voters into heavily Democratic districts. “Using the Voting Rights Act to justify racial discrimination is anathema to the purpose of the Voting Rights Act,” says Stacey Abrams.
But it’s also difficult for voting rights advocates to prove in federal court that packing minority voters into majority-minority districts diminishes their ability to elect candidates of choice. That’s why the Justice Department has pre-cleared redistricting plans in every Southern state so far except Texas, much to the chagrin of civil rights activists. (Plaintiffs may have better luck in state court in places like North Carolina, where the court has acknowledged that civil rights groups have raised “serious issues and arguments about, among other things, the extent to which racial classifications were used.”) “I have not been at all satisfied with the civil rights division of the Justice Department under the Obama administration,” says Joe Reed, a longtime civil rights activist and redistricting expert in Alabama.
Wasserman says the Justice Department is saving its legal firepower to challenge restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans in half a dozen Southern states since 2010. The laws require proof of citizenship to register to vote, cut back on early voting, curtailed voter registration drives and required voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting a ballot. The department has already objected to South Carolina’s voter ID law, since blacks are more likely than whites to lack the necessary ID. “Every method that human ingenuity can conceive of is being used to undermine, dilute and circumvent the rights of minority voters to enjoy the franchise,” says Reed.
The use of race in redistricting is just one part of a broader racial strategy used by Southern Republicans to not only make it more difficult for minorities to vote and to limit their electoral influence but to pass draconian anti-immigration laws, end integrated busing, drug-test welfare recipients and curb the ability of death-row inmates to challenge convictions based on racial bias. GOP presidential candidates have gotten in on the act, with Newt Gingrich calling President Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.” The new Southern Strategy, it turns out, isn’t very different from the old one.