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Redistricting Strategies Impact Local and National Elections

By Kirk Clay and Madura Wijewardena

 State houses, city councils and many other institutions across America are now engaged in an endeavor that has occurred every decade since the nation’s founding — they will decide how electoral boundaries will be drawn based on where people live. These decisions will have a major impact on who is elected to public office.

This practice originates from the radical but simple plan set out in the U.S. Constitution which states that America will count every person every decade and use the results of that count to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. At that time, using a population count to determine representation was an unusual proposition because, according to Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, population counts had been used before to levy taxes or property or to pressure people for military service and not to ensure that the government had the consent of the governed.

This radical but simple plan originally had profound injustice embedded in it by stipulating that slaves held in bondage be counted as three-fifths of a person. In 1868, Congress ratified the 14th amendment, allowing former slaves to be counted as full-individuals, one result of the costly, bloody struggle of the Civil War.

Immediately following the Civil War, during Reconstruction, over 600 African Americans occupied various elected offices across the nation. With the end of that era  came an almost century-long period of despair, which began when African Americans were habitually disenfranchised through Jim Crow practices, lynching, segregation, institutionalized racism, and incarceration discrepancies, to name a few.  By 1965, only 300 African Americans occupied elected offices.

The enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered some hope of government with the consent of all those who are governed and not just a few, requiring states to draw legislative boundaries that would maximize minority voter empowerment. Like the 14th amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not an end in itself but a mere foothold in the unending struggle for justice.

As we approach that moment when electoral boundaries are redrawn, opportunities for regression are immense; and this moment requires renewed and continued vigilance.

With President Barack Obama, an African American, holding the highest office in the nation and many African Americans in elected offices across the nation, one may ask have the times not changed?

 Times have changed six-fold. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1970 there were about 1,500 African American elected officials.  In 2000 the number of African Americans in elected offices had reached about 9,000. Improvements must not be confused with underrepresentation.    Based on the number of elected officials reported by the Census Bureau in 1992 – 513,200 – in 2000 African American elected officials were 2% of all elected officials. African Americans were 12.3 % of the population.

A civil rights redistricting strategy for 2011 must maximize African American voter empowerment by defending past improvements and by agitating to move the nation closer to the ideal of equal representation. 

To achieve this, civil rights communities must focus on three things: 1) more local level action to set up long-term pathways; 2) the strategic use of census data to push for change; and 3) the strategic use of census data to reject aggressively the regression of the original mandates of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Civil rights communities must remember that redistricting is not just for apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives it also impacts local-level elected offices. Significant shifts in the U.S. population will have an impact on African Americans’ role in the next presidential race. Eighteen states have gained or lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Electoral College votes that a candidate for president gets when he/she wins one of those states also will be increased or reduced by the numbers of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that are gained or lost.

In order to maximize minority voter empowerment civil rights communities must take action at this critical juncture to make sure the intent of the Voting rights Act of 1965 is preserved.

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Kirk Clay is Senior Advisor at PowerPAC. Madura Wijewardena is Director of Research & Policy at the National Urban League Policy Institute