Perverting the Will Of the Electorate

By Gus Tyler

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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The 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Georgia v. Ashcroft may very well turn out to be a turning point in the history of the American democracy. It all has to do with the way in which the gerrymander has perverted the will of the electorate and what can be done to make electoral results more truly reflect the voters’ choice.

In Georgia, as in other Southern states, the common practice was to carve out districts in such a way as to make certain that no African-American would be elected. The method was to take an area that was solidly black and break it up into pieces that were attached to other areas to create districts predominantly “white.” The method was known as “cracking.”

When the Voting Rights Act was passed, banning discrimination against blacks in the electoral process, the practice of “cracking” was given up in favor of “packing.” A district was created that was overwhelmingly black. But the outlines were designed to remove blacks from other districts where their vote, albeit a minority, was the swing vote to put Democrats in office. By packing one or two districts with this strategy, a seat or two would be guaranteed to blacks but would cost the Democrats the loss of four or five seats. In both instances — “cracking” and “stacking” — the party in control of the process was “stacking” the results of the election even before the voters went to the polls.

When the Democrats came to power in Georgia, they decided to un-stack the “stacking.” They reduced the percentage of blacks in three of the state’s “packed” senatorial districts — but not below 50% — and redistributed blacks to other districts where their presence swung the vote in favor of the Democrats.

Whereupon they were advised — apparently by U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft — that their action was illegal and in violation of the Voting Rights Act because it discriminated against blacks by reducing the percentage of blacks in some districts. When the case came to the high court, the decision favored the Georgia Democrats. In her opinion in this landmark case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “The state may choose that it is better to risk having fewer minority representatives in order to achieve greater overall representation to a minority group by increasing the number of representatives sympathetic to the interests of minority voters.”

If the story ended here, it would be of historic significance. But, it is turning out that this decision has inspired a series of moves in other states to curb the corrupting course of the gerrymander in general — not just in Georgia or in the matter of minorities. The locale is Pennsylvania, where the number of enrolled Democrats outnumber enrolled Republicans by a half million but where, after the Republican-controlled legislature, following the 2000 census, carved out districts to guarantee the election of 12 Republicans and only seven Democrats. The constitutionality of the gerrymander by the GOP is being challenged before the Supreme Court.

In the past, it was common for the court to refuse to get involved in this “political thicket.” But now, the Supreme Court — on the heels of Georgia v. Ashcroft — intends to hear the case. All of which is history in the making in the long struggle to save our precious democracy from the claws of that crippling creature — the gerrymander.

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