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Redistricting Spurs Debate Over Voting Rights Act

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. John Barrow, Georgia’s only white Democratic Member, faces a tough re-election under the state’s new redistricting map, which was approved by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act.

As new Members take the oath of office in January 2013, something unprecedented may occur: Not a single white Democrat from the Deep South could be a Member of the 113th Congress.

Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina already have just a single Democratic Representative in Congress. Each of those Democrats is African-American and represents majority-black districts.

It’s a trend that may extend to a fifth state in the Deep South. Georgia’s Republican-written Congressional redistricting map, which became law in 2011 and was approved by the Department of Justice just before Christmas, undermines the current Democratic bent of Rep. John Barrow’s district. He’s the Peach State’s one white Democratic Member. The new map is likely to leave Georgia’s delegation with only four Democrats — representing the state’s four majority-black districts.

Of course no political trend lasts forever, but for the time being, a Barrow loss would conclude a decades-long process that has slowly, in fits and spurts, eliminated conservative white Democrats from the South.

It’s a trend that has been hastened, some Democrats say, by the decennial redistricting process controlled almost exclusively by GOP-held legislatures in the South. Some outspoken Democrats allege that GOP statehouses have used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to speed up this trend by drawing reliably Democratic African-American voters into “black-max” districts, while leaving Republican districts comfortably GOP-leaning.

“I think the Republicans have gone on a racial jihad to black max and pack blacks into districts. And many African-Americans agree with me,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who is white.

The colorful and controversial party chairman, who is an attorney, passionately argued in an interview with Roll Call over the summer that the GOP used the Voting Rights Act as cover for packing Democrat-voting African-Americans into the fewest number of districts possible, “which bleaches out all the districts around them.” He also contends that major parts of the landmark civil rights legislation had outlived its usefulness.

“The rationale behind the Voting Rights Act was correct: White people would not vote for black people in the Deep South in the ’70s, ’80s and perhaps even the ’90s. But those days are over,” Harpootlian said. He cited the election of President Barack Obama, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin (D), all of whom are African-American.

House Democratic Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), Congress’ highest-ranking black official, disagrees with Harpootlian’s assertion that the VRA is outdated. Clyburn said in August that he hopes one day the Voting Rights Act will become irrelevant but that it’s still necessary.

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