How to Block Minority Representation, Yesterday and Today

Susan Walsh / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The ongoing battle over voter rights—or, depending on your partisan persuasion, voter fraud—is on one level a struggle over whether it’s more important to ensure that the most people possible can vote, and that voting laws don’t have a disparate racial impact; or whether it’s more important to ensure the sanctity of the ballot box against errors, regardless of how that might inconvenience minorities, young people, or other groups. (One salient point here is that most restrictions—reducing early voting, closing polling locations, requiring specific photo ID—hurt minority turnout, while evidence of fraud is practically nonexistent.)

On another level, though, it’s a battle about history: whether the restrictions being enacted in red states are part of a new struggle over civil rights, or whether the struggle for racial equality is completed and these news laws are totally different. Proponents of voter-ID laws understandably wish to distance themselves from their segregation-era predecessors, for both moral and political reasons. Officials in Shelby County v. Holder didn’t argue that racist voter suppression never happened; they argued that strenuous protections were no longer necessary. The Court agreed and struck down a requirement that certain jurisdictions submit any changes in voting laws to the Department of Justice to assess whether they were discriminatory.

The problem is that many of the tactics employed in the new voting-rights battle are exactly the same ones that the Voting Rights Act sought to root out. Take this in Jim Rutenberg’s long feature in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, reported from Pasadena, Texas:

With the political stakes rising, the mayor had made an unexpected move: He proposed a ballot initiative reducing the number of Council districts to 6 from 8, while adding two new at-large council seats that would now represent the entire city. At-large offices might seem more democratic, as they are selected by the entire city instead of only the people in one district. But because Hispanic turnout was so low in citywide elections, whites could outvote them every time. Under the new plan, the mayor’s majority would almost certainly be safe ….

[Republican Mayor Johnny] Isbell said his decision to change the city’s charter came from his long-held belief that at-large seats are better for the city. ‘‘The citizens are better served by having more than one person they can go to,’’ he told me, leaning forward in his rocker. ‘‘I’ve always believed that.’’

As it happens, when I looked at Rutenberg’s story, I had just been reading about G.K. Butterfield Sr. A dentist in Wilson, North Carolina, he ran for city council in 1953 and won the election, becoming the first African American member of the council. When Butterfield went on vacation, the town changed its laws, switching from a ward-based council to a body elected entirely at-large—thus diluting the black vote. Four years later, Butterfield lost his reelection bid. The NAACP challenged the new plan, but lost; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in 1961. Once the VRA was passed in 1965, however, the Department of Justice began rejecting changes like Wilson’s—or like Pasadena’s.

This story is probably not uncommon; it just happens to be known because Butterfield’s son, G.K. Butterfield Jr., is a successful politician. After serving as a North Carolina Supreme Court justice, he was elected to the U.S. House, representing North Carolina’s first district and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. (He’s my representative.) As it happens, the 1st is this weird-looking entity, tortuously designed to be a majority-minority district, another legacy of the VRA:

Wikimedia Commons

It’s entirely possible that modern-day politicians like Isbell are stumbling upon the same strategies as mid-century segregationists by coincidence. But set aside the intent. The fact that plans like Pasadena’s were consistently blocked under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the preclearance requirement the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County, doesn’t offer much reassurance that the plans aren’t just as discriminatory in 2015 as they were in 1953.