How the Voting Rights Act Hurts Democrats and Minorities

Though conservatives hope the Supreme Court will strike part of the law this month, the 1965 act has become central to GOP control of the House.
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Demonstrators rallied outside of the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Shelby County vs. Holder in February. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Civil rights are on the nation's docket in a major way. Sometime this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide an important voting-rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, in addition to another case involving racial discrimination in higher education and two potentially landmark cases on gay marriage. By the end of June, the nation's civil-rights profile may look quite different.

In Shelby County, the justices are weighing whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act should continue to apply specially to designated regions of the country with ugly histories of racial discrimination. These regions, including the entire state of Alabama as well as eight other states and more than 60 counties, currently must seek "preclearance" from the Department of Justice for any changes to their voting laws and practices (changes can still be challenged after enactment). Officials in Shelby County, Alabama, say "times have changed," that Shelby County is no longer the cesspool of Jim Crow racism it once was, and so the high court should overturn the preclearance requirement, known in legal parlance as Section 5.

Despite the protestations of Shelby County and other jurisdictions, mountains of evidence show that there is little doubt that Section 5 is still needed, including in Shelby County. If anything, preclearance requirements should probably be extended to more parts of the country. Every election reveals new and deviously crafted efforts at voter suppression, from voter-ID laws to intimidation and long lines at the polls that by coincidence seem to afflict minority precincts more than others. Republican legislators in various states continue to push laws that will clearly have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. Section 5's preclearance has been a powerful disincentive against discrimination in elections that, sadly, is still very present today. If the Supreme Court guts Section 5 -- as voting-rights advocates fear will happen, given the Court's conservative majority -- the nation will be jumping off a cliff into unknown territory.

But it would be a mistake to think that, though many Republicans want to see Section 5 struck down, they oppose other sections of the Voting Rights Act. Quite the contrary: The GOP has found the VRA to be a great ally. It turns out the act, as traditionally applied, has helped the party win a great number of legislative races. It also has become a potent obstacle to the Democrats retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.

Beginning in the civil-rights era in the 1960s, the Republican Party -- the party of Lincoln -- became the loudest opponent of race-based remedies to discrimination, whether in school admissions, hiring, or minority representation. The Democrats, once the party of segregation (some people forget that segregationists George Wallace and Strom Thurmond were elected governors of Alabama and South Carolina, respectively, as Democrats) did a dramatic about-face in the 1960s and became the party of civil rights. Acting under the legal strength and moral authority of the Voting Rights Act, the Democrats led the charge to draw so-called "majority-minority districts" -- ones packed so full of minority voters that they usually resulted in electing a minority representative, as intended. The number of minority representatives jumped exponentially from the 1960s through the 1980s, with the number of black House members increasing from five to 24 by 1989.

But just in time for the redistricting in 1990, some enterprising Republicans began noticing a rather curious fact: The drawing of majority-minority districts not only elected more minorities, it also had the effect of bleeding minority voters out of all the surrounding districts. Given that minority voters were the most reliably Democratic voters, that made all of the neighboring districts more Republican. The black, Latino, and Asian representatives mostly were replacing white Democrats, and the increase in minority representation was coming at the expense of electing fewer Democrats. The Democrats had been tripped up by a classic Catch-22, as had minority voters: Even as legislatures were becoming more diverse, they were ironically becoming less friendly to the agenda of racial minorities.

Newt Gingrich embraced this strategy of drawing majority-minority districts for GOP advantage, as did the Bush Administration Justice Department prior to the 1991 redistricting, even as GOP activists like now-Chief Justice John Roberts campaigned against the VRA because they opposed any race-based remedies. The tipping point was the 1994 midterm elections, when the GOP captured the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 35 years and Gingrich because speaker. Many experts on both the left and the right, from The Nation's Ari Berman and prominent GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg (who spearheaded the 1991 effort to maximize the number of majority-minority districts), attribute the Republican success that year to the drawing of majority-minority districts; indeed, African-American membership in the House reached its highest level ever, at 40.

VRA districts undoubtedly played a role in the GOP takeover, but they were not the only factor, since Republicans made big gains that year in lots of places outside the South. But in the hardscrabble battles of the 50-50 nation, any advantage at all was embraced, and prominent Republicans like Ginsberg and Gingrich became the loudest proponents of drawing majority-minority districts. Many Republicans still promote this strategy today, and it's the only race-based remedy the GOP has supported in the modern era. The party has been more than willing to shelve its ideology when it suited their naked political interests.

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