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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.

People often take “a singular event and turn that into a pattern,” he added. “I would hope that the Voting Rights Act would become passé, but it certainly is not passé yet.”

He cited the fact that his state has yet to elect an African-American statewide. “And it’s not because none has been qualified,” added Clyburn, who has run for statewide office twice.

Are the days serving in Congress numbered for white Democrats from the South? “Heck, no. Absolutely not,” Clyburn said.

But, he added, if “all these Congressional districts to get bleached the way they are trying to do up there in North Carolina and down in Georgia and the Justice Department sits idly by and lets that happen, then that’s going to be a problem.”

But the 10-term Congressman didn’t seem worried. “I just have enough faith in the Justice Department that that’s not going to be allowed to stand,” Clyburn said.

The VRA requires nine states and parts of five others to have new electoral lines approved by either the federal District Court for the District of Columbia or the DOJ.

Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, the redistricting vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an interview over the summer that Republicans are not using the Voting Rights Act to pack districts, but that he does think the VRA had “outlived its time.” Westmoreland was one of 33 Members to vote against the extension of the VRA in 2006. He noted that packing districts was illegal and that mapmakers had no choice but to draw as many majority-minority districts as the census data alluded to.

If they wanted to, just how much could Republicans pack districts without violating the law?

Michael Kang, a professor at Emory Law School and an expert in redistricting, said the effect was minimal. “Any Republican effort to pack African-American voters into a few districts — certainly there is some political incentive to do that, and I don’t think that’s any secret — is fairly well limited by” the act, he said.

During the summer interview, Westmoreland said that in states allotted extra districts in reapportionment, such as South Carolina and Georgia, sometimes mapmakers had no choice but to consolidate minorities to keep the proper number of majority-minority districts without diluting minority influence. “So it may look like you are trying to consolidate ’em or run a squiggly line somewhere to pick them apart,” Westmoreland said. “But that’s part of the Voting Rights Act. You have to do that.”

The Department of Justice precleared South Carolina’s Congressional map in October, North Carolina’s map in November and Georgia’s map on Dec. 23.

Whatever effect redistricting ends up having on the political contours of Congressional districts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, the Deep South has long been infertile territory for Democrats, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone said that the politics of the region would eventually move back toward Democrats.

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