A Virginia Democratic staffer emailed me the other day with some interesting information I thought worth passing on. What prompted the email was the Supreme Court striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, as well as this quote in the Richmond Times Dispatch by the Executive Director of the Virginia ACLU:
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, called the court’s decision a potential “death blow” to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
"By doing so, the Court has blocked the single most effective instrument of fairness in place since 1965,” she said.Gastañaga said that the preclearance process blocked 15 discriminatory voting laws in Virginia between 1982 and 2006, including a $45 fee that the Republican Party proposed to impose on convention delegates in 1994 – a practice overturned as a poll tax.
What were those 15 discriminatory voting laws blocked by "preclearance?" A March 2006 report report lists instances where Section 5 of the VRA prevented voter disenfranchisement in Virginia. Note that much of the intervention stemmed from Republican plans to pack black voters into districts, much in the same way that they tried during the last session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Also note that most of Virginia’s Section 5 objections since 1982 have involved redistricting. Officials have consistently attempted to limit African-American voters’ political influence by “packing” them into a few districts or dispersing them among several majority-white districts to limit their ability to elect candidates of choice. This form of “vote dilution” is designed to cabin minority voting power, and is indeed “old poison in new bottles.” Moreover, changes made during redistricting usually have an impact for a decade or even beyond. Section 5’s role in ensuring that the political opportunities of African Americans are not further limited during redistricting has likely protected the rights of innumerable African-American voters.
•March 1982. The Petersburg City Council proposed an ordinance (Ordinance No. 8191) to realign the voting districts and change voting precinct boundaries and polling places for the City of Petersburg. The DOJ objected, finding that the proposed redistricting plan would lower the black proportions in the First District from 69.9 percent to 61.5 percent and in the Fourth District from 71.2 percent to 61.6 percent. According to the DOJ, such a diminution was intended by the majority-white city council to increase white voting strength in those districts and would, likewise, diminish the opportunity of African- American voters to elect candidates of choice and lead to a decline in African-American representation.
•March 1982. The DOJ objected to portions of the 1981 reapportionment of the Virginia House of Delegates. Specifically, the DOJ noted that the city of Norfolk was retained as a large multi-member district, whereas a fairly apportioned plan of single-member districts would have provided for two districts with substantial black majorities. The multi-member district plan had the inevitable effect of limiting the potential of African Americans to elect their candidates of choice. Further, the DOJ rejected the stated rationale for the plan—that the city of Norfolk had a large population that did not vote locally—finding that this rationale was not applied uniformly throughout the state. The DOJ also objected to the packing of African-American populations in Hampton and Newport News into one 75 percent African-American district. The remainder of the African-American population was divided among three other districts, all of which had substantial white majorities. According to the DOJ, a fairly drawn plan in this area would have two districts with a substantial African- American majority. Finally, the DOJ found that although District 90 contained a sizeable African-American majority, it was so contorted as to likely confuse voters and candidates, exacerbating financial and other disadvantages experienced by many African-American candidates.
•November 1982. Greensville County proposed a redistricting ordinance to change four single-member districts into two double-member districts and to add a fifth member to be elected at-large. The DOJ objected because the plan attempted to merge districts with politically active black voters with districts that were politically inactive, thereby reducing the electoral capability of African-American voters. According to the DOJ, because the current four single-member districts provided an opportunity for African Americans to elect their candidates of choice, the plan presented a clear retrogression of African-American voting strength.
•March 1986. The city of Franklin proposed three annexations that would have reduced the city’s African-American population by 3.7 percent – from 55.4 percent to 51.7 percent – causing the city’s voting-age population to shift from a black majority (51.9 percent) to a white majority (51.7 percent). The DOJ objected, finding that under the city’s at-large election system, African-American candidates had limited success because of racial bloc voting. The proposed annexations would have perpetuated and enhanced the existing restrictions on the ability of African Americans to realize their voting potential.
•July 1991. The DOJ objected to a portion of the 1991 reapportionment of the Virginia House of Delegates. The DOJ found that the proposed configuration of district boundary lines appeared to have been drawn in such a way as to minimize black voting strength in Charles City County, James City County, and the Richmond/Henrico County areas. Specifically, there were large concentrations of African Americans placed in majority- white districts. The legislature rejected available alternatives that would have recognized this concentration of voters by drawing them into a district with African-American voters in the Richmond area. Such a configuration likely would have resulted in an additional district, providing African-American voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice. The DOJ noted that the protection of incumbents, which the state explained was the reason for this districting, was not in itself inappropriate, but it could not be done at the expense of minority voting rights.
•November 1991. The DOJ objected to the proposed redistricting of supervisor districts and precinct realignment in Powhatan County. The DOJ found that although the county had a 21.4 percent African-American population, no African American ever had been elected county supervisor. The county’s African American population was concentrated in such a manner that available alternatives would have allowed African-American voters an opportunity to elect candidates of choice in one of the five supervisor districts. This result was avoided, however, through the division of the county’s African-American population between Districts Three and Five. Even though District Three had a majority African-American total population, it was only 38 percent when the non-voting population of the Powhatan Correctional Center was excluded. The county rejected a plan that would have created a district that combined the African- American population in the northern portion of the county in one district, which could recognize better the voting potential of African American citizens. Again, the DOJ noted that the county’s actions may have been motivated in large part by the desire to maintain districts conducive to the re-election of the incumbent supervisors who were all white, which was not per se improper. The protection of incumbents, however, could not be achieved at the expense of minority voting potential.
•April 2002. Pittsylvania County proposed a redistricting plan for its board of supervisors and school board members which would have reduced the African- American population in the only majority-minority district in the county (Bannister District). The DOJ objected, finding the proposed reduction was retrogressive. In fact, according to the DOJ, even a minute reduction would have greatly impaired African-American voters’ ability to elect candidates of choice. Furthermore, the existence of alternative plans that actually ameliorated minority voters’ ability to elect their choice candidates underscored the DOJ’s objection.
•July 2002. The DOJ objected to Cumberland County’s proposed redistricting plan for its board of supervisors. The DOJ found that District 3 was the only district in which African Americans constitute a majority (55.9 percent) of the population. The proposed plan would have reduced that majority to 55.3 percent and reduced the voting-age African-American population from 55.7 percent to 55.2 percent.
•Sept. 2001, May 2003 & Oct. 2003. Northampton County proposed a change in the method of electing the board of supervisors by collapsing six districts into three larger districts. The DOJ objected, finding that three of the six districts were majority-minority districts in which African-American voters regularly elected their candidates of choice. The new plan would have diluted the minority-majorities and caused them to completely disappear in two of the three new districts—clearly having retrogressive effects. Two years later, the county provided a new six-district plan, which had the same retrogressive effects of the three-district plan. The DOJ objected and provided a model non- retrogressive, six-district plan, which has yet to be followed by the county.
Anyone who thinks this problem is only in the past is delusional. Attempts at voter suppression, overwhelmingly by Republicans against African Americans, Latinos and young people – not coincidentally, all overwhelmingly Democratic voters – is alive and well in America today. That’s why Congress needs to act, ASAP, to come up with a new VRA formula. But will it? Unlikely, given that Teapublicans control the House of Representatives, and that it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate. Which means we’re going to have to fight this out by turning out in droves at the polls, election after election, until justice is done. Don’t take your eye off the ball; this could take years of hard work. Then again, that’s what it took to get the Voting Rights Act – and an end to Jim Crow – in the first place!