Charlie Harper: Voting rights and redistricting

March 1, 2013 

Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, the sticking point in an Alabama case that will likely see the portion of the law altered or struck down. Section V applies only to "state and local governments with a history of voter disenfranchisemen.t" As such, in a search to provide equal voting rights to all Americans it maintains a separate but equal approach to administering voting laws across the U.S.

The Supreme Court warned in an earlier decision that Congress should take a serious look at updating the law which holds predominantly Southern states to a different standard than others when administering voting laws. The standards and practices have not been significantly changed since the South was dominated by segregation.

The law has had some unintended consequences. The law that was designed to ensure that black voters would be able to elect black representatives has resulted in the decimation of white Southern Democrats. Even the Democrats bemoaned the strict application of the law during Georgia's last redistricting process - as if somehow overlooking the law to allow the election of more Democrats or drawing districts specifically for more white Democrats would have been acceptable under the law and for Justice Department and judicial reviews.

Gerrymandering of congressional districts has been cited as one of the chief polarization of partisan viewpoints in Congress. It is almost mandated in areas covered by Section V but occurs most anywhere there is a partisan edge in state houses that match the party of the governor in those states.

Georgia Republicans were rightfully incensed about the districts drawn by Democrats when they controlled the reapportionment process after the 2000 census. Democrats were equally not amused by Republican efforts after 2010. Democrats are adopting a strategy to retake the state in 2018, leaving control of the Governor's mansion a key factor in who will draw the maps in 2021 - and thus set a partisan advantage for the next decade.

Now would be a good time to propose a change to Section V that preserves voting rights and restores "communities of interest" as a concept that trumps the forced process of redrawing districts along racial lines. It would also be a good time to ensure that the party with control in 2021 isn't able to abuse the process once again.

The law should be rewritten to establish clear processes on how districts are drawn, based on geographic boundaries rather than racial ones. Concepts should include that a county that has the population of more than a congressional district should contain one district within the boundaries of a county. Counties should not split congressional representation by more than one congressional district. An order of importance for natural and man-made geographic boundaries should be established such as city limit lines, rivers, interstate highways, etc. to be used when deciding where district lines should be.

In Georgia, the numbers of state House members and state Senate districts are close enough that an additional rule (which would require a state constitutional amendment) could further refine the process to members of the General Assembly: Three state House districts must be self-contained within each state Senate district. Four state Senate districts must be self-contained within each congressional district.

If Georgia still has 14 congressional districts after 2020's census, this would result in the same 56 state Senate districts we have now, and 168 (instead of 180) state House districts. Should we have a 15th district added, Georgia would add four state Senators and would end up with 171 state House members.

The bigger result would be that those who represent us in Congress and here at home would have a closer connection to the citizens and the local governments within their jurisdiction. The communities would again be choosing their leaders, and we would end the current system where leaders choose their voters.

And, perhaps most specifically, more of our elected officials would be representing constituents who were black and white, rich and poor, but have the common ties of community. That, rather than hyper partisan highly segregated districts, is much closer to the spirit of the Voting Rights Act than the unintended consequences which have resulted today.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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