Redistricting: Where Do You Draw The Line?

Race comes to the fore as the wars over congressional seats start anew

Are minorities treated fairly in U.S. elections? That question emerged as a potentially explosive issue in November's Presidential election--and it is only going to get hotter. Beginning this April, the country will go through its painful, once-a-decade ritual of redistricting: redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts to take into account population shifts. Done by state legislatures immediately after the release of federal Census data every 10 years, it's intended to ensure that places that gain residents get more representation in Congress while those that are shrinking lose votes.

But these days, redistricting also has an important secondary goal: to boost the political power of minorities. Under a 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, state legislatures are prohibited from drawing districts in a way that abridges a citizen's right to vote "on account of race or color." Translation: Some states have to ensure that minorities are in the majority in districts where there is a large nonwhite population. But this obligation runs smack into a series of decisions the Supreme Court has issued over the past eight years (table). These rulings have held that race can't be a predominant factor in designing political districts--and have hinted that the high court will look askance at any districts that are gerrymandered to give specific minorities a stronger voting bloc.

As a result, the states don't know what to do this time around. No matter how they design the new districts, they are likely to get sued. If minorities (and, by implication, Democrats) are unhappy, they'll claim the legislatures have violated the Voting Rights Act. If Republicans don't like the results, they'll charge the states have ignored the Supreme Court. And the issue of race is going to be center stage in this drama. "Practically every redistricting plan is going to wind up in court," says Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), No. 4 in the House Democratic leadership.

At stake is nothing less than control of Congress. Ten states will lose at least one House seat this year; eight will gain at least one. Within states, Democrats and Republicans both want to draw new boundaries that encircle enough votes to protect their incumbents while designing the remaining districts to upset candidates from the other party. It's like trying to complete a massive puzzle even as the pieces are constantly rejiggered. "It is a crazy juggling act," says Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

RECENT WOUND. Add to that the volatile racial element. African-American voters opposed Bush 10 to 1, the largest gap since Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 campaign. Allegations of minority-voter suppression hang over several states, and Hispanics and African Americans still are seething over the recount debacle in Florida. The combination makes the race and redistricting debate even more sensitive. "You have a potentially explosive mix," says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

During the last round of redistricting, in 1990, minorities made solid gains. Nine states, guided by the Voting Rights Act, created 13 new districts dominated by African Americans. Two years later, a record 39 blacks won House seats. Today, the House has 59 minority members, 37 of them African American.

These developments prompted a series of lawsuits, most of them brought by conservative Republicans, claiming the new race-based districts violated the constitutional voting rights of whites. In 1993, a divided Supreme Court agreed in the landmark case of Shaw vs. Reno. In an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court ruled 5-4 that the 12th Congressional District in North Carolina, which snakes 160 miles through black neighborhoods in several cities, was "bizarre" and unconstitutional. But the high court conspicuously stopped short of overturning the Voting Rights Act altogether, leaving the state of the law vague.

Since then, the court has issued three other key rulings, each one elaborating on the original Shaw vs. Reno case and constricting the scope of the Voting Rights Act. In the 1998 case Reno vs. Bossier Parish, for instance, the court limited the Justice Dept.'s ability to intervene to force race-based redistricting. Since the original Shaw case in 1993, five minority districts in four states have been deemed unconstitutional and dismantled. "The courts have made it so you can challenge any plan," says David Lublin, a political scientist at American University. "It has added more tensions to a process that is already highly politicized."

Despite the Supreme Court's hazy signals, the convoluted process will get under way in earnest in April when the Census Bureau releases detailed data on population and race. Republicans will pursue a strategy known as "bleaching" in which they try to create as many highly concentrated minority districts as possible. By packing people who vote overwhelmingly Democratic into a few districts, the GOP makes it easier for its own candidates to win in surrounding areas.

Democratic officials, by contrast, hope to create more black and Hispanic seats by dispersing minority voters across multiple districts. California, Texas, New Mexico, and New York--where the Dems control the governors' mansions or state legislatures--are all candidates for new race-based districts. To achieve their goal, Democrats will have to reduce the proportion of minorities in safe seats now held by African American or Hispanic incumbents. The plan: to take the minority population down to 30% or 40% from as high as 60% and spread the remaining minorities into neighboring Republican strongholds in an effort to weaken the GOP's margin. The idea is to create opportunities for Democratic challengers in 2002, when the party hopes to upend the current five-vote Republican majority in the House.

SECOND FRONT. As these dramas play out, another fight will center on the new Census figures themselves. If the Census Bureau concludes that minorities were overlooked in the most recent count, it will release two data sets--one based on the actual head count and another based on scientific sampling. Sampled data could create impetus for new minority districts in states such as Texas, California, and New Mexico.

Five states--Colorado, Alaska, Virginia, Kansas, and Arizona--passed laws last year forbidding the use of sampling data in redistricting. Minority groups, meanwhile, fear that President Bush will block release of sampling data altogether. On Dec. 20, a coalition of five civil-rights groups urged Bush to let the states decide whether to rely on actual head counts or sampling data.

Of course, redistricting is never pretty. But this year, everyone involved is bracing for an all-out legal assault. Unless the Supreme Court draws a bright line between advancing the rights of underrepresented minorities and protecting the constitutional rights of white voters, expect the process to get downright ugly.

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