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Majority-Minority Districts

[ 2 ] March 26, 2011 |

This is an area that I used to know a lot about earlier in my academic existence, but has nothing to do with the paper I’m trying to  finish today opposed by my daughter’s best efforts (the effect of EU Framework I grants on turnout to European Parliament elections).  As I haven’t examined majority-minority districting in well over ten years the following is based on memory (hence corrections are not only welcome, they’re invited).

While I now vote in OR-5 based on our opulent Lake Oswego Estate, I voted in WA-7 for over 20 years, a shift I find satisfying as OR-5 is a swing district, whereas WA-7 is a very safe Democratic seat such that the Republicans often do not bother running a candidate.  There is a proposal to carve out a majority-minority district based in large part on the extant 7th District.

My initial reaction is that this is a bad idea.  I am not opposed to majority-minority districts per se.  However, this proposal fails to achieve the goals of majority-minority districting on two criteria.  First, to my knowledge every existing majority-minority district concentrates a single minority in said district, be it African-American or Latino.  The goal here is to afford political minorities the ability to elect a member of their community — in effect, to guarantee their election.  This proposed district, however, “wouldn’t give a majority to any single ethnic or racial minority — rather it would treat all of them as a single bloc.”

It doesn’t work like that.

Second, due to differences in turnout rates, in order to guarantee the election of a minority, they usually need to constitute around 55% of the district’s population (there are exceptions; see NC-12, made famous by Shaw v Reno).  The proposed district, at 50.1%, barely qualifies under an expansive definition of “majority-minority”, let alone one that achieves the primary goal.

There are other critiques of such districts, both normative (usually they require creative gerrymandering; see IL-04 as an example), and political.  The latter is problematic from a Democratic perspective as to achieve the goal of minority representation, an atypically high number of Democratic voters have to be packed into the district, thus mitigating their influence in neighbouring districts.  This reason is why the Bush 41 Justice Department was quite keen on majority-minority districts under the pre-clearance provisions of the VRA.  However, given that Washington has a new 10th district following reapportionment, in this case it’s not a zero-sum game.

There are positive ramifications as well.  Descriptive representation is a key result, and this is one reason why the demographics of the House come close to national percentages.  For example, in the 111th, African Americans held 9.5% of House seats (against 13% of the national population); Latinos did considerably worse, however, at 5% of the House against over 14% of the population.  There is also empirical evidence suggesting that descriptive representation enhances the sense of external efficacy amongst minority populations (not only from the United States, but also concerning the Maori in New Zealand).  Of course, descriptive representation does not necessarily equate into substantive representation.

I have a couple other observations on this article (written by Jim Brunner, whom I have known since my undergraduate days and is an excellent reporter).  First, it’s suggested one of the criteria employed by Washington’s redistricting panel is to avoid splitting cities “wherever possible”.  Maintaining the geographic integrity of Seattle clearly plays into Republican hands; furthermore, I’m not sure why retaining municipal integrity in House districts is at all important.  One of the dysfunctions of the US House is that a small minority of districts are ever truly competitive in any given election.  While I am a big fan of Jim McDermott, it would be more democratic if he faced credible opposition once in a while.  Second, Brunner writes that

Federal voting-rights laws do encourage states to avoid drawing boundaries that dilute the political clout of minorities. In many states, extra care is given to drawing districts that ensure African Americans are majority, for example, due to the historical efforts to disenfranchise them.

This is true, but to expand on what Jim’s written, the real teeth of the VRA as applied to representation is the requirement of pre-clearance under Section 5.  Washington is not one of the states or jurisdictions that require Justice Department pre-clearance of its electoral rules.

I find the entire notion of single member districts problematic from a representation perspective, and have long agreed with Lani Guinier that there are better remedies to representational disenfranchisement than gerrymandering.

Comments (2)

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  1. mpowell says:

    It seems to me that the House is the less dysfunctional of our two legislative branches. It has a far greater democratic legitimacy based on proportional representation than the Senate and it also operates by majority rules (albeit with plenty of committee shenanigans).

    But I think you are right that getting a mixed majority minority districts is a bad idea compared to the principle of getting more competitive districts.

  2. [...] thoughtful, struggling-with-it post on Lawyers Guns & Money is skeptical of the usefulness of this kind of a district here. It’s notable, though, as one [...]

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