High court ruling
could affect SC voting districts
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SC Statehouse Report
JULY 20, 2003 - - A dozen years ago when Bob Sheheen was Democratic
speaker of the S.C. House, he said something that has stuck with
me - - some wisdom that some elected officials seem to forget:
"You don't have to be black to represent black people,"
he said. "And you don't have to be white to represent white
people. I can be an effective advocate for black South Carolinians
in my district, even though I'm white."
Now conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court seem to have
taken a page from Sheheen's book as they jumped into a fray over
the shaping of legislative districts. In a June decision that likely
will have a sweeping impact on future voting, the court said districts
created to have a majority of black voters might not be the best
idea for improving democracy. Instead, legislatures can use a host
of factors to redraw districts, including creating districts to
encourage biracial voting coalitions.
"Various studies suggest that the most effective way to maximize
minority voting strength may be to create more influence or coalitional
districts," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority.
"Section 5 allows States to risk having fewer minority representatives
in order to achieve greater overall representation of a minority
group by increasing the number of representatives sympathetic to
the interests of minority voters."
When South Carolina redrew state political lines for 1992, lawmakers
sought to increase the number of so-called "black majority
districts." While this tactic put more blacks in office - -
including the positive result of leading to the election of the
state's first black congressman (U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn) in more
than 100 years - - it had an additional effect: It made adjoining
Following the creation of these black majority districts by an
odd coalition of GOP and black Democratic lawmakers, a political
realignment quickly ensued. In 1994, Republicans took over the S.C.
House. A few years later, they took control of the state Senate.
Today, legislative districts are more heavily Democratic or heavily
Republican than ever before. What's happened is the federal Voting
Rights Act led to a kind of resegregation of the state via voting
districts. By focusing on drawing districts to boost Democratic
or Republican participation, lawmakers increased political polarization,
which, in turn, diminished the power of the moderate voters.
"Because we are all herded into highly partisan districts,
our elected representatives have no incentive to appeal to the moderate
middle," said Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Jay Bookman
in a recent column.
By manipulating districts into black majority (heavily Democratic)
and whiter (heavier GOP) districts, South Carolina also protected
incumbents and created a dynamic for less political competition
In the 2002 elections, 50 Republican (all white) House members
had no opposition. Some 38 Democrats (21 black; 17 white) had no
opposition. Only 36 races were contested between parties. In effect,
the results of the election largely were decided before voters got
to the polls. Republicans only had to pick up 13 of 36 seats - -
many of which leaned toward Republicans anyway - - to keep their
majority in the House.
Notes Washington Post writer Thomas Edsall, "The GOP's goal
has been to concentrate as many Democratic voters in as few districts
as possible, increasing the likelihood of electing Republicans in
surrounding districts. The strategy - - which helps elect black
Democrats but defeat a larger number of white Democrats - - has
contributed to the GOP takeover of several southern legislatures
and congressional delegations in the past quarter-century."
With its new ruling, the Supreme Court is encouraging states like
South Carolina to dilute the "whiteness" of some districts
to increase political competition. In South Carolina, this would
tend to help Democrats, who are more successful in building biracial
Legislators next are rescheduled to redraw lines in 2012. But because
the state's lawmakers redrew this decade's lines for a second time
this year, the courts could use the new Supreme Court opinion to
issue more new maps - - if the just-passed reapportionment is challenged
in court. And with this new ruling, it most likely will be.