Who Gets to Gerrymander? Racism and Electoral Politics

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
	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
	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.

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