by Rebecca Kaplan
One of the fundamental underpinnings of democracy is the notion that "the people" get to select their political leaders. Of course, many battles had to be fought and won in the United States to ensure that "the people" actually included all people. Even after laws were changed so that it became legal for Black men and all women to vote, other restrictions, such as poll taxes and literacy tests persisted for many more years. Those exclusionary mechanisms are no longer legal, though difficulty of access to voter-registration still allows for the perpetuation of the historic inequities in the realities of who gets to vote. The recent Motor-Voter law seeks to put voter-registration sites in DMV and welfare offices. This law has been strongly resisted by those politicians who do not want a more democratic electorate, most vociferously by Governor Pete Wilson (R-California). There remains another, more obscured method which politicians have used to perpetuate their power, and mold election outcomes-influencing the shape of electoral districts, also known as Gerrymandering. The drawing of electoral district lines is a remarkably contentious process. Generally, those who are in office have a strong influence over re-districting decisions. Political leaders will often influence the drawing of district lines in ways that help perpetuate their own power or the strength of their political party. For instance, if a congressman wins an election by a narrow margin, he might have the lines of the district re-drawn in an attempt to exclude a neighborhood that voted against him, thus increasing his chances of victory in upcoming elections. As another option, that congressman might draw additional politically advantageous areas into his district in order to silence the voices of opposition. Sometimes, the opposite tactic is used: including opposition to silence dissenting voices. If a Democrat-leaning downtown is surrounded by Republican-leaning suburbs, Republicans in power might try to re-draw district lines in a way that chops up the downtown area, so that several suburban districts each swallow up a small piece of the downtown district, thereby leaving no downtown district at all. These techniques-re-drawing electoral district lines to benefit a particular group-are called Gerrymandering (named after a Massachusetts politico who is believed to have pioneered the practice). For many years, such practices have been ignored or even condoned by the courts. There have never been clear guidelines on the required shape of electoral districts; oddly shaped areas which look like donuts or zigzags do not violate any established rule. Furthermore, there are no sufficient safeguards in place to prevent people in power from influencing the re-drawing of districts in ways that enforce their power. Thus, Gerrymandering can be highly problematic. It can allow politicians to put waste-producing corporations in a different district from the downwind populations that are suffering, consequently reducing people's influence over the corporations. It can also allow politicians to separate wealthy populations from poor ones, or to make racial divisions in the population. In recent years, racially-motivated Gerrymanders have been the focus of increased attention and condemnation, and have been seen by many as a form of segregation. In 1993, the US Supreme Court, in Shaw v. Reno, ruled that drawing bizarre, racially specific electoral districts is unconstitutional. However, even the initial Supreme Court ruling, which called such districts "political apartheid," seemed to place greater scrutiny on majority Black or Latino districts than on majority White districts. Since then, other courts, using Shaw as a guideline, have only strengthened this racial double-standard. Recently, a US District Court in Texas had an opportunity to rule on the legality of several bizarre-looking Gerrymanders. Two majority White districts were ruled to be acceptable, while a majority African-American district and a majority Latino district were ruled unacceptable. This remarkably inconsistent decision is a slap in the face to communities of color who are seeking a variety of means to increase their political clout and seems to imply that Gerrymanders which serve the interest of powerful groups are acceptable, while those which serve the interests of less powerful groups are forbidden. The illogical "logic" of the Texas court decision derives from a commonly held misunderstanding about the meaning of "race." The court was perpetuating the notion of white people as neutral subjects and people of color as racialized "others." This conclusion flows from the common misconception that African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color have racial identities and racialized political motivations, while Whites supposedly do not. The majority African-American and Latino districts were interpreted as racially motivated, and therefore illegal. The majority White districts were interpreted as racially neutral, and therefore legal. The race-baiting content of most recent political debates on topics such as welfare reform and the death penalty highlight the fact that race is quite relevant to electoral outcomes, and candidates seeking to Gerrymander their districts know it. Defenders of the majority White districts try to argue that those (legal) districts were drawn for the purpose of protecting the incumbency of specific elected officials (who just happen to be White), by excluding areas in which the incumbent was not victorious (which just happen to be populated by people of color). Since race was not the motivating or intentional factor behind those redistricting decisions, those decisions are supposedly not "racial discrimination." This defense of the majority White districts relies on the supposed neutrality of Whiteness; when White voters support a White candidate because that candidate makes them feel comfortable, or "looks like them," race somehow goes unseen. Even if the courts were to treat all "bizarre" Gerrymanders equally, there would remain other problems. Of course, one could argue that any kind of biased Gerrymandering should be ruled illegal, and certainly redistricting to protect incumbency-even if it doesn't have to do with race, should be banned because it hampers democracy. Solutions to these problems must address the reality of the under-representation of people of color in the political sphere, and the racist foundations in our society which engender that under-representation. In a more perfect world, white people would be willing to vote for people of color, and the district composition would be less important. We must recognize that although we might want to argue for the elimination of all biased electoral districts, eliminating all the majority-people of color districts would most likely immediately reduce the number of people of color holding political office. In the South, no Black candidate has ever been elected to Congress from a majority-White district. It will eventually be necessary to examine other methods for improving electoral equality. One method would be strict implementation of laws such as Motor-Voter, which will increase voter registration in under-represented communities. It is also useful to examine alternative voting methods, such as those proposed by Professor Lani Guinier. These systems, such as ranked voting or distributing multiple votes, could be useful changes that might get us away from the all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all electoral systems which encourage people to vote against someone rather than for someone. In ranked voting (which is used in Cambridge) voters get to assign ranks to all the candidates. In this way, voters can give the top rank to the person that they really prefer, and the second rank to the person who is their pragmatic "lesser of two evils" candidate. The other proposed system of distributing multiple votes would allow each voter to have, for example, seven votes, which they may distribute among the candidates in whatever way they choose. Both of these methods allow for a measure of not only which candidate a person prefers, but also, how strongly the voter prefers that candidate. If more people begin to take the issue of access of people of color to elected office more seriously, it is likely that many more solutions could be devised. In the meantime, the courts must at least avoid this double-standard, and either allow or ban all biased Gerrymanders. It is important to contest the notion that racial motivation is absent from White political choices and that "race" is a trait which only people of color possess. As long as that notion persists, decisions which give undue favor to White people may continue to be defended as being "not about race." It is vital to find methods to deal with the reality of racism and racial politics in the United States, so that everyone will have access to democracy.