Will 2011 redistricting finally kill off the endangered White Georgia Democrat?

The short answer to my own question is no, of course not.

But the next few election cycles could be abysmal for white Democratic candidates in Georgia.

Peach Pundit has published a memorandum by Georgia House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams — “a very smart, critical thinker” according to the post — that explores the racial implications of the new statewide district lines adopted last week by the Georgia House. The post notes that under the new maps “Republicans were projected to win about 123 seats, Democrats 57, of which 49 would be majority-minority districts.”

Wait. Barack Obama wins 47% of the vote in the state (and seems likely to get that same number in 2012), but Republicans in the House would outnumber Democrats by more than 2 to 1? And the number of white Democrats could literally fall into single digits?

Is this legal? We’ll see what the courts say in response to the inevitable challenges, but I’m guessing that yes, it’s legal.

Abrams’ memo includes the following arguments:

  • PACKING MAJORITY-MINORITY DISTRICTS: Our analysis shows an increase from 42 to 49 Majority Minority Districts, with rates as high as 72% Black Voting Age Population. This level of packing is not necessary.
  • DILUTION OF VOTING STRENGTH: By packing Majority Minority Districts and targeting White Democrats, the proposed GOP map dilutes and reduces the effectiveness of minority voting strength by eliminating the ability to build multi-racial coalitions. Georgia has a demonstrated history of multi-racial coalitions, which will be eviscerated by the proposed scheme.

Abrams argues: “Targeting White elected officials is as unlawful as targeting any other race.”

Larry Peterson with the Savannah Morning News has a great piece about some of the history here: Redistricting intensifies racial polarization of Dems, GOP. Larry writes:

Redistricting likely will make the Georgia Democratic Party blacker — and to the extent that it’s possible — the Republicans whiter.

For years, most Democratic candidates have won the support of barely one in five white voters. And they draw that of about nine out every 10 black voters.

Blacks dominate the party’s primary elections and its state House and Senate caucuses. Four of the five Georgia Democratic congressmen are black.

The GOP is even more lopsidedly white.

And, thanks to applications of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, the racial chasm probably will deepen.

Yes, this polarization in part has its roots in the Voting Rights Act. Jeffrey Toobin explored this issue in a seminal piece — The Great Election Grab; When does gerrymandering become a threat to democracy? — in The New Yorker in 2003:

The transformation of congressional redistricting began long before the 2000 census, and the crucial issue was race. In the early nineteen-sixties, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, transformed American politics by enforcing the principle of one man, one vote, and requiring that all legislative districts contain the same number of people. Before these decisions, which started with the famous case of Baker v. Carr, in 1962, Southern (and some Northern) states had designed districts so that black voters had no meaningful say in Congress. Later in the decade, the Voting Rights Act established the principle that not only did blacks have the right to vote but they had to be placed in districts where black candidates stood a good chance of winning. The act, which was one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s most important civil-rights initiatives, led to the election of many more black members of Congress—and was a classic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.

“When the civil-rights movement started, you had a lot of white Democrats in power in the South,” Bobby Scott, a congressman from Virginia who was first elected in 1992, said. “And, when these white Democrats started redistricting, they wanted to keep African-American percentages at around thirty-five or forty per cent. That was enough for the white Democrats to keep winning in these districts, but not enough to elect any black Democrats. The white Democrats called these ‘influence’ districts, where we could have a say in who won.” But Republicans sensed an opportunity. “They came to us and said, We want these districts to be sixty per cent black,” Scott, who is African-American, said. “And blacks liked that idea, because it meant we elected some of our own for the first time. That’s where the ‘unholy alliance’ came in.”

The unholy alliance—between black Democrats and white Republicans—shaped redistricting during the eighties and nineties.

Toobin particularly explored the new districts in Texas after the 2000 Census that seemed designed to reduce the number of white Democrats:

All the congressmen who are likely to lose their jobs in the new DeLay plan are white. Many of their black constituents have been transferred to safe Democratic seats, where they can’t harm Republicans. The unholy alliance has had the additional side effect, especially in the South, of making the Democrats the party of blacks and the Republicans the party of whites—which presents daunting long-term political problems for the Democratic Party. Many Democrats can’t help but express a perverse admiration for the cleverness of the strategy. Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican redistricting operative who helped to construct the unholy alliance during the 1990 cycle, referred to the initiative as “Project Ratf*ck.”

I don’t have any informants within Georgia Republican circles and I don’t know if the virtual elimination of white Democrats in the Georgia legislature and in the U.S. Congress (the proposed Congressional maps will be released soon) is part of a clear plan, but there’s obviously a history to what’s happening right now. Some black Democrats who savored their power can in part be blamed for the “unholy alliance”, and Democrats generally can be blamed for not seeing the trend here and seeking changes to the Voting Rights Act. As Toobin explores in his piece, this is not just an issue of white vs. black or of Democrat vs. Republican, but an issue of protecting incumbency by making districts ever safer for a single party. And it’s an issue of state legislatures taking competitive U.S. House districts and tilting them suddenly one way or the other. That’s what seems likely to happen to Georgia’s 12th district Representative John Barrow, a Democrat who will have a tough time winning the 12th if the new lines are drawn where I suspect they will be.

So what will happen to white Democrats? They’ll keep voting Democratic for the most part, although some will register as Republicans and some will vote routinely in Republican primaries. As blacks and Latinos make up an ever-greater percentage of the Georgia electorate, many of those seemingly safe Republican districts will become less so. If Georgia continues to lose jobs, at some point voter anger — currently focused on the federal government — will be directed at state leaders, who will have no one to blame if the entire state government is dominated by Republicans.

It’s going to be interesting to see how all this plays out.

3 comments for “Will 2011 redistricting finally kill off the endangered White Georgia Democrat?

Comments are closed.