Where Will We See New VRA Districts?

It’s a subject of much debate (and some confusion), and it’ll remain at least somewhat opaque until the Obama Department of Justice weighs in, but the question still is: Where will we see new majority-minority districts created in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act? I invite you to list any states – and especially regions of those states – where you think maj-min districts could get drawn, whether by state legislatures, by the DoJ, or in the end, by the courts. Bonus points for anyone who actually draws any proposed VRA districts.

Washington Redistricting: How About a Majority-Minority District?

Here’s an interesting proposal from some Seattle-area activists: a majority-minority district in the Seattle area.

That could be done, just barely, by combining Southeast Seattle with the suburbs south of the city, where the minority population has exploded over the past decade.

The Win/Win Network, a nonprofit group, drew up the potential “majority people of color” district and plans to submit it to the Washington State Redistricting Commission, the bipartisan panel charged with redrawing the state’s political map this year.

It isn’t as convoluted-looking as you’d think, but it would violate tradition (and usual redistricting commission policy) by splitting Seattle down the middle. (You can see the map at the link.) While north Seattle — maybe the likeliest place outside of Sweden to see a Volvo-on-Volvo traffic accident — is what makes Seattle one of the whitest major cities, south Seattle is very diverse and if you add in its close-in southern suburbs, you literally get to 50.1%. Whether this actually gets forced into being is a big VRA-related puzzle, though; while recent case law (like Bartlett v. Strickland) has dealt with districts where a minority’s share doesn’t reach 50%, I’m not aware of any cases on the issue of creating minority districts where the share tops 50% but it’s a tossed salad of all possible minorities. The implications of that issue could be huge, especially for redistricting California this year.

If you haven’t seen the New York Times’ newest version of its remarkable Census map (now updated with 2010 count data to replace ’05-’09 ACS data), the Seattle example is a neat place to start, especially if you’re having trouble conceiving of the Seattle area as diverse. Go to the dot-based racial distribution map, and find Census tract 281, just north of the airport. This may actually be the most racially balanced tract in the whole nation, more so than anything in Queens or the East Bay, based on my puttering around the map: it’s 26% white, 24% black, 19% Hispanic, and 22% Asian. In fact, here’s a challenge/rainy day activity for you all: if you can find anything more balanced, let us know in comments! (Sorry, no babka.)

This opens up a can of worms in terms of what’s most “balanced,” though, depending on how many races you want to talk about. Tract 919 in Flushing, Queens, is 27% white, 33% Hispanic, and 33% Asian (but only 4% black)… or if you want to go with a 5-way split, check out Tract 9603 (Nanakuli, on the west shore of the island of Oahu), which is 12% white, 18% Hispanic, 17% Asian, 30% multiracial, and 20% Native Hawaiian! I don’t want to limit how you define “balanced,” so feel free to point out any interesting tracts that you find.

UPDATE: I’ve found at least one that seems to beat that Seattle-area tract: it’s Census tract 355108 in Antioch, California (in Contra Costa County): 25% white, 24% black, 24% Hispanic, and 20% Asian.

SCOTUS: Voting Rights Act Pre-Clearance at Risk?

The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments in a case challenging the “pre-clearance” provisions of Section 5 the Voting Rights Act. Pre-clearance requires that certain jurisdictions across the nation seek approval from the Department of Justice before altering voting qualifications or practices. Examples include changing the location of polling places, changing filing deadlines, or implementing new redistricting plans.

So-called “covered” jurisdictions include any state, county or town which implemented a “test or device” to restrict the franchise (like a literacy test), and where less than 50% of voting-age citizens were registered or voted in November 1964. Most of these places are southern states like Alabama and Texas, but much of New Hampshire, several counties in California, and three boroughs in New York City are also covered, for example.

Though the VRA in general and pre-clearance in particular are hallmarks of liberal voting reforms, Congress passed its most recent extension of the Act in 2006 with almost universal bipartisan support – 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – after which it was signed by President Bush. However, a challenge to pre-clearance has now made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the prospects don’t look good for the law:

A central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to protect minorities in states with a history of discrimination, is at substantial risk of being struck down as unconstitutional, judging from the questioning on Wednesday at the Supreme Court.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose vote is likely to be crucial, was a vigorous participant in the argument, asking 17 questions that were almost consistently hostile to the approach Congress had taken to renewing the act in 2006.

“Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio,” Justice Kennedy said. “The sovereignty of Alabama is less than the sovereign dignity of Michigan. And the governments in one are to be trusted less than the governments in the other.”

Kennedy and his fellow travelers (Alito in particular) seem to be upset that Congress hasn’t updated the formula for determining which jurisdictions should be covered since the VRA was first passed. Of course, Congress could change the criteria, but as the article notes, it would be politically difficult to do so.

As you may know, the Bush DOJ did its best to kill Section 5 – career attorneys at Justice, for instance, decided that Tom DeLay’s Texas gerrymander violated the VRA, but they were over-ruled by political appointees. Sadly, if the Supreme Court strikes down pre-clearance, Section 5 could simply die altogether.