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Redistricting Spurs Debate Over Voting Rights Act

As new Members take the oath of office in January 2013, something unprecedented may occur: Not a single white Democrat from the Deep South could be a Member of the 113th Congress.

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina already have just a single Democratic Representative in Congress. Each of those Democrats is African-American and represents majority-black districts.

It’s a trend that may extend to a fifth state in the Deep South. Georgia’s Republican-written Congressional redistricting map, which became law in 2011 and was approved by the Department of Justice just before Christmas, undermines the current Democratic bent of Rep. John Barrow’s district. He’s the Peach State’s one white Democratic Member. The new map is likely to leave Georgia’s delegation with only four Democrats — representing the state’s four majority-black districts.

Of course no political trend lasts forever, but for the time being, a Barrow loss would conclude a decades-long process that has slowly, in fits and spurts, eliminated conservative white Democrats from the South.

It’s a trend that has been hastened, some Democrats say, by the decennial redistricting process controlled almost exclusively by GOP-held legislatures in the South. Some outspoken Democrats allege that GOP statehouses have used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to speed up this trend by drawing reliably Democratic African-American voters into “black-max” districts, while leaving Republican districts comfortably GOP-leaning.

“I think the Republicans have gone on a racial jihad to black max and pack blacks into districts. And many African-Americans agree with me,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who is white.

The colorful and controversial party chairman, who is an attorney, passionately argued in an interview with Roll Call over the summer that the GOP used the Voting Rights Act as cover for packing Democrat-voting African-Americans into the fewest number of districts possible, “which bleaches out all the districts around them.” He also contends that major parts of the landmark civil rights legislation had outlived its usefulness.

“The rationale behind the Voting Rights Act was correct: White people would not vote for black people in the Deep South in the ’70s, ’80s and perhaps even the ’90s. But those days are over,” Harpootlian said. He cited the election of President Barack Obama, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin (D), all of whom are African-American.

House Democratic Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), Congress’ highest-ranking black official, disagrees with Harpootlian’s assertion that the VRA is outdated. Clyburn said in August that he hopes one day the Voting Rights Act will become irrelevant but that it’s still necessary.

People often take “a singular event and turn that into a pattern,” he added. “I would hope that the Voting Rights Act would become passé, but it certainly is not passé yet.”

He cited the fact that his state has yet to elect an African-American statewide. “And it’s not because none has been qualified,” added Clyburn, who has run for statewide office twice.

Are the days serving in Congress numbered for white Democrats from the South? “Heck, no. Absolutely not,” Clyburn said.

But, he added, if “all these Congressional districts to get bleached the way they are trying to do up there in North Carolina and down in Georgia and the Justice Department sits idly by and lets that happen, then that’s going to be a problem.”

But the 10-term Congressman didn’t seem worried. “I just have enough faith in the Justice Department that that’s not going to be allowed to stand,” Clyburn said.

The VRA requires nine states and parts of five others to have new electoral lines approved by either the federal District Court for the District of Columbia or the DOJ.

Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, the redistricting vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview over the summer that Republicans are not using the Voting Rights Act to pack districts, but that he does think the VRA had “outlived its time.” Westmoreland was one of 33 Members to vote against the extension of the VRA in 2006. He noted that packing districts was illegal and that mapmakers had no choice but to draw as many majority-minority districts as the census data alluded to.

If they wanted to, just how much could Republicans pack districts without violating the law?

Michael Kang, a professor at Emory Law School and an expert in redistricting, said the effect was minimal. “Any Republican effort to pack African-American voters into a few districts — certainly there is some political incentive to do that, and I don’t think that’s any secret — is fairly well limited by” the act, he said.

During the summer interview, Westmoreland said that in states allotted extra districts in reapportionment, such as South Carolina and Georgia, sometimes mapmakers had no choice but to consolidate minorities to keep the proper number of majority-minority districts without diluting minority influence. “So it may look like you are trying to consolidate ’em or run a squiggly line somewhere to pick them apart,” Westmoreland said. “But that’s part of the Voting Rights Act. You have to do that.”

The Department of Justice precleared South Carolina’s Congressional map in October, North Carolina’s map in November and Georgia’s map on Dec. 23.

Whatever effect redistricting ends up having on the political contours of Congressional districts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, the Deep South has long been infertile territory for Democrats, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone said that the politics of the region would eventually move back toward Democrats.

“The reality is that in the Deep South … you see that for Democrats to chip back at it, it just takes a longer time,” he said in 2011. “The pendulum is a little slower down here, maybe it’s the heat of the day. Instead of big sweeps like you see in other parts of the country, you’re going to see one or two seats picked off each cycle.”

Anzalone offered a rhetorical question and answer: “Will it take 10 years to the point where you’re writing a different story? Probably so.”

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