Friday, March 10, 2006

Why Redistricting Reform Will Fail, pt. 2

In my last post on this subject, I discussed the concept of retrogression and how that judicial and legal interpretation will bring about the downfall of Rep. John Tanner's bill which would create independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) in the states to tackle the task of drawing the lines for Congressional districts after each census. This segment will deal with the legal claim of vote dilution.

Vote dilution is often described as the diminuation of the voting power of a bloc of voters, specifically minority voters. Unlike retrogression, vote dilution is not the reduction of a minority group within one district, but rather the spreading of minority voters across several districts. But this argument flies in the logical face of the fundamental basis of district, the one person, one vote doctrine. Not only that, the doctrine itself is inherently racist and particularly untenable given the subjective nature of districing. Finally, if an IRC model is to work effectively, maintaining the claim of vote dilution will only serve to undermine the purpose of the IRC.

Since the 1960's and the annunciation of the one person, one vote doctrine handed down by the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr and its progeny, congressional and state legislative districts are expected to be as equal in terms of the number of people as practicable. In Congressional districts, strict numerical equality is all but a requirement, where only a slight deviation, usually deviations between districts that can be counted on two hands, is permitted. The standard makes no mention of outside criteria, such as the number of Republicans vs. Democrats, the number of citizens vs. aliens (legal or otherwise), the number of eligible voters vs. those not eligible to vote (i.e. children). No, the standard refers to numerical equality, but strict numerical equality in population is not necessarily one person, one vote since there is, within any given district, a certain, significant percentage of people who have no right to vote.

But aside from the convenient fiction that is modern redistricting, the legal standard of one person, one vote assigns an empirical value to each person's vote, one. The claim of vote dilution distorts this empirical value by trying to accomplish three mathematically impossible propositions, each of which is impossible in the real world.

Using very basic math, we can understand that x, which is the vote of a person, equals 1. Also in math, we can understand that x, a variable, can have one of three characteristics:
  1. X can be less than 1,
  2. X can equal 1, or
  3. X can be greater than 1
In mathematics it is impossible for X to be less than one AND equal to one at the same time. Similarly, X CANNOT be less than one, greater than one AND equal to one at the same time. The value of X can be only one of the three above propositions.

But when plaintiffs bring a vote dilution claim, they are arguing that X, the power of a citizen's vote is, at teh same time, less than and greater than the legal standard of one. When a plaintiff argues that a district has diluted their vote, they are implicitly saying, my vote has been made less than one. However, we can obviously see that the plaintiff's vote is not counted any differently than it was before the new district, their vote still counts as one.

However, vote dilution isn't really about one person's vote, but about many people's vote. Under a vote dilution claim, plaintiffs argue that because of their status as a minority, their individual vote is MORE valuable than one else's vote. Thus, the vote of minorities is greater than one.

In other words, a vote dilution claim argues that some votes are more valuable than others, so that they are deserving of an additional protection, that of not having their votes diluted by drawing lines that break up a voting bloc of racial minorities. At teh same time, the claim implicitly argues that the vote of a group of minorities is weaker than everyone elses and therefore must be aggregated together so that they can have an impact on the outcome of an election.

The arguement, in addition to being a logical fallacy, carries an inherent and almost explict tone of racism. Along with majority minority districts and retrogression, a vote dilution claim has ONLY been brought by a racial minority, i.e. blacks, hispanics or asians (although I know of no case involving vote dilution of an asian population). A minority of white voters, in urban New York, for example, are not likely to succeed on a claim of vote dilution if their numbers are spread across a number of districts. So a paternalistic law was passed to "protect" the power of minorities to "elect a candidate of their choice." The claim says that without the protection of the state, your one vote is not worth the same as other voters. So in order to give more power to you, we will, arbitrarily, give more weight to your vote, but only in certain circumstances. We will also prevent the government from breaking up your voting bloc.

But the vote dilution claim also forces minority voters into an electoral ghetto, one in which they cannot escape because the legal system will not allow a voting bloc to be broken down in any way. Either it is retrogression or vote dilution, or both. The electoral ghetto assumes that all members of a racial minority vote in the same way, an assumption we know to be false. Fully 40% of hispanics (and large in some communities like Cubans, voted Republican in 2004. A growing segment of black voters are also voting Republican, 11% in 2004, up from 9% in 2000. Thus, the claim of vote dilution, which is based on the idea of a cohesive voting bloc of minority voters, assumes a faulty presumption, that racial minorities vote as a bloc.

Returning to the dilemma faced by an Independent Redistricting Commission, if the IRC makes a line drawing choice, entirely logical upon its face and in keeping with the procedural mandates it must operate under, any dilution of a minority bloc runs the risk of invalidating the map. For example, if State B has one large city that cannot be accomodated in one congressional district, the IRC must decide how to divide the city. Assume a river, a natural boundary that can be respected for districting purposes, runs through the center of the city. The population on each side of the city happens to be roughly equal. So the IRC says everyone on the north side of the river is put into District 1 and everyone on the south side of the river into district 2. But a large black community straddles the river on the east side of the city, by dividing the city in the way it did, the IRC runs the risk of having the plan invalidated.

Once again, the dictates of a Voting Rights Act interpretation will eviscerate the power of the IRC to draw lines to find strict numerical equality. Tanner's bill, while noble in cause, and probably practical (assuming it survives constitutional challenge) cannot operate in an atmosphere where inane VRA challenges, like vote dilution, can void the effort of the IRC. Tanner and redistricting refomers would be far better off insulating IRCs from these pressures, perhaps by banning the vote dilution claim altogether.

Next Time: Recommendations for Improvement.

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