Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Back to the Old Drawing Board

Luis Lugo


July 8, 1996

For the fourth year in a row the Supreme Court has struck down minority congressional districts, ruling that the law must acknowledge that voters are more than mere racial statistics. In separate 5-4 decisions, the court recently determined that four so-called majority-minority districts in Texas and North Carolina were drawn primarily along racial lines instead of using traditional districting principles such as geographical compactness. White voters have now successfully challenged eight such districts in five states on the grounds that they violate the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection, and several more districts could meet the same fate.

Those who pressed for the creation of these racially gerrymandered districts are strange bedfellows: The Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican National Committee. The two pursued the strategy for very different but equally short-sighted reasons.

The Republican National Committee, which dreamed up the scheme and convinced the Justice Department in the Bush administration to implement it, encouraged the high concentration of black, mostly urban, Democratic voters so it could carve out safe adjoining districts of Republican-leaning suburban voters. Though the move unquestionably contributed to Republican gains in 1992 and 1994, it has also given the GOP yet another excuse not to address the concerns of minority voters nor to heed the changing ethnic composition of the American body politic. The former is morally indefensible. The latter will prove politically catastrophic.

For their part, black Congressional repre-sentatives have been rewarded by seeing the number of minority representatives nearly double since 1990. Such gains have come with a high price tag, however. In the long run, there are the dangers associated with state-sponsored racial discrimination. More immediately, one wonders why blacks would acquiesce in being confined to such congressional ghettos, making it much easier for all other politicians to ignore the concerns of African American citizens both in their electoral strategies and in crafting legislation. This can't possibly be good for ethnic and racial minorities, nor for the country as a whole.

Where does the court's decision leave those of us who wish to encourage minority representation and comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 but who see racial gerrymandering as the wrong solution? We should start by realizing that the court majority has failed to see that the current practice of gerrymandering for incumbency protection or partisan advantage is not any more acceptable than the racial kind.

We then need to push Congress to adopt the Voters' Choice Act (H.R. 2545), recently introduced by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), which would lift the 1967 mandate imposing single-seat, winner-take-all districts and enable states to implement alternative electoral systems that allow for minority points of view to be represented. These are already in use in several localities in the United States as well as in most democracies throughout the world. We must then encourage states to create multi-seat districts in which political parties are forced to address the entire citizenry with coherent policy programs.

The principle is simple: Elections should hinge on what the voters really think, not on the color of their skin or where they happen to live. As we celebrate Independence Day and recall the pivotal role of the representation issue in that struggle, let us resolve to make our electoral system one in which the people select the representatives, not where the representatives select the people.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”