Originally published in The Nation.
CONGRESSMAN MEL WATT DOES A GOOD JOB of representing his constituents. A soft-spoken attorney and one of Congress’s left-most members, Watt hails from one of the more ideologically homogeneous districts in the country: the 12th District of North Carolina. Since he was first elected in 1992, the district has been a skinny 160-mile-long crescent that starts in the mill town of Gastonia, follows the Interstate 85 corridor of small Piedmont cities, picks up poor and working-class neighborhoods in Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and ends in the tobacco-and-technology city of Durham. Its voters, 56 percent black and 41 percent white, live in urban communities that share a common set of concerns: unemployment and poverty, drugs and gun violence, inadequate childcare and public transit, and a paucity of federal dollars to deal with these problems. Despite their racial diversity, they’re politically united, consistently giving Watt about 70 percent of the vote. Up in Washington, Watt fights for gun control, Legal Services funding and a single-payer health system. He and the 12th are a fine match.
But to the US Supreme Court, the district is an outrage, a serpentine stretch of land that doesn’t deserve to be considered a coherent Congressional district. “Reapportionment is one area in which appearances do matter,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1993 in Shaw v. Reno, the first of five years’ worth of legal decisions that have thrown North Carolina politics into turmoil. “A reapportionment plan that includes in one district individuals who belong to the same race, but who are otherwise widely separated by geographical and political boundaries, and who may have little in common with one another but the color of their skin, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” Although O’Connor was in fact referring to one of the most racially integrated districts in the country, her decision and others have forced North Carolina to rewrite district lines, particularly those of the 12th.
In the years since Shaw, the state legislature has tried to remedy O’Connor’s concerns. Last year it lopped off almost half the 12th District, making it 52 percent white but keeping enough African-American voters to protect Watt’s seat. That change, which was to go into effect for this year’s elections, didn’t satisfy the courts. In April a federal three-judge panel halted the state’s May Congressional primaries and ordered the legislature to redraw the lines again. The judges claimed that even the revised, truncated, white-majority district was gerrymandered to help black voters. On June 22 the same panel approved a new 12th, which is considerably more compact and conservative, and only 35 percent African-American. In the primary election, which will be held September 15, Watt faces fellow Democrat Ronnie Adcock.
Admittedly, the soon-to-be-defunct 12th is odder-looking than most. But the jurisprudence it has inspired is odder still. The Shaw case spawned a series of federal court decisions striking down black- and Hispanic-majority districts around the country. The decisions haven’t been entirely consistent, but the courts have generally said that race cannot be the primary factor in drawing a district, even in a state with a decades-long pattern of electing only whites to Congress.
As a result, African-Americans and Latinos are the only people for whom irregularly shaped districts are prohibited. If state lawmakers want to draw a district in the shape of an octopus to keep an incumbent in power, that’s legal. If they want to cluster tobacco farmers as a voting bloc, that’s OK too. “Some of the nation’s most bizarre districts were crafted to protect white incumbents,” American University historian Allan Lichtman noted in a 1994 Christian Science Monitor column. But protecting black interests, even in a racially integrated district like Watt’s, amounts to “political apartheid.”
“The very stability and tranquility of our social order is predicated on the notion that everybody has the right to get together and elect the candidates of their choice,” says Winnett Hagens, director of fair representation for the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based social democracy organization. “What the Supreme Court has said to black folks and Latinos is that you can’t get together and elect your candidates of choice. I call that virtual disenfranchisement.”
TO UNDERSTAND HOW DEVASTATING these legal decisions will be, it helps to look at how the complexion of the House has changed over the past eight years. During the Congressional redistricting that followed the 1990 Census, the Justice Department directed certain states to maximize the number of districts with black and Hispanic majorities. The Bush Administration had an ulterior motive: It hoped that by corralling minority voters into electoral ghettos, the surrounding white districts would be more likely to vote Republican.
The GOP was mildly successful with this “bleaching” strategy; different experts estimate that the Democrats lost anywhere from one to ten seats as a result. But the reapportionment proved a boon for minorities. Although they were still underrepresented, the number of blacks in Congress rose from twenty-seven in 1991 to forty in 1993. Hispanic members jumped from twelve to eighteen. Among the members elected were Louisiana’s Cleo Fields, a consumer advocate; Georgia’s Cynthia McKinney, who has crusaded for an “international code of conduct” that would limit arms sales to human rights violators; and North Carolina’s Eva Clayton, who advocates cutting the military budget and funding job training and other domestic programs.
Watt, too, was part of this tide. Raised in a rural community called Dixie, without electricity or running water, he graduated from Yale Law School before going to work for a civil rights law firm in Charlotte. He served a term in the state Senate and ran Harvey Gantt’s unsuccessful 1990 Senate campaign against Jesse Helms. In 1992 Watt coasted to victory in a four-way Democratic primary for Congress.
In the House, Watt, respected for his lawyerly sense of reason, emerged as a leader within the Congressional Black Caucus. But he can be a fierce fighter too. As the ranking Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, he has worked to assure that Mexican immigrants receive the same treatment as those from Canada. Last year, Watt joined Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. in fighting a measure requiring public housing residents to do unpaid volunteer work, calling the proposal “one step removed from involuntary servitude.” He opposed President Clinton’s antiterrorism bill, particularly the new limits on prisoners’ appeal rights. “We’re sacrificing our constitutional rights because we’re angry about the bombing in Oklahoma City,” he noted.
Watt is emboldened to take strong political stands because of the support he gets back home. Even though his constituents are spread out on the map, they are united in other ways. “The district may not be geographically compact, but it is philosophically compact,” he says. “If 99 percent of your constituents are consistent in their philosophy, it’s easy to represent what they believe in, no matter how far apart they live.”
Robinson Everett doesn’t see it that way. A Duke University law professor, Everett has been litigating against gerrymandering since the sixties, when he challenged a district drawn to protect a white incumbent. Everett, a self-described moderate Democrat, believes Congressional lines should be drawn without respect to political party, incumbency or race. And he viewed the 12th District as a flagrant violation of that principle. So in 1992, the year Watt was first elected in the new district, Everett lined up some acquaintances in the 12th as plaintiffs—including a close friend named Ruth Shaw—and filed suit. The lawsuit, much of it underwritten by the Republican Party, bounced throughout the court system, producing three Supreme Court decisions. Eventually Everett triumphed, and that victory forced the recent redrawing of the district. The September primary will be the first election for the whiter, more compact district.
Meanwhile, other suits were filed around the country, and courts have struck down districts in Louisiana, Florida, Texas, New York and Virginia on the grounds that they were drawn with the sole intent of protecting minority voters. In Georgia the courts dismantled two of the state’s three black-majority Congressional districts. The first casualty of these legal wars was Louisiana’s two-term Congressman Cleo Fields, who represented a Z-shaped district. With the new district’s black population cut from 55 to 28 percent, Fields decided in 1996 not to seek re-election, and the seat is now held by a white Republican. Retired federal appellate judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. estimates that one-third of the African-Americans in Congress could lose their seats as a result of these lawsuits.
In Georgia, Cynthia McKinney and Sanford Bishop have managed to hold on to theirs—but at a cost. McKinney had to spend more than $1 million in 1996 to capture the 30 percent of the white vote she needed to win the election. Bishop, one of the House’s more conservative Democrats, managed to keep his seat by edging further to the right. He voted to outlaw late-term abortions and opposed a ban on assault weapons—turnabouts from his previous positions.
Watt worries that even if he wins re-election this coming November in a more conservative district, he’ll be unable to represent it without making moral concessions. “The thing I loved about the old 12th District is that I could be their representative and never feel like I was bending to their wishes,” he says. If he gets elected in a more conservative district, “I’m not going to be Mel Watt the progressive. I’m going to be Mel Watt the representative. Does that mean I’ll have to bend my positions? I don’t know. Does that mean I’ll be uncomfortable representing my new district? I don’t know. If it becomes too uncomfortable, then it becomes incumbent on me to admit that, and go on to something else.”
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION? In an era when the Supreme Court is nixing race-conscious redistricting, how can African Americans and Latinos get fair representation in Congress? Is it reasonable—and politically effective—for advocates of minority groups to continue arguing that there are common racial political interests that should trump geographic considerations when districts are constructed?
Some black academics believe the answer is to accept the court’s rulings and rely more on alliances with white politicians and voters. “It’s not in the interests of blacks to be packed together,” says Carol Swain, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “I would never draw a district, anywhere, more than 40 percent black.” Swain argues that spreading African-American voters throughout white-majority districts would force white legislators to be responsive to black interests, while sometimes electing black lawmakers like McKinney.
This view puts Swain at odds with most mainstream civil rights organizations, whose strategy is to protect minority districts through lobbying and litigation. “The full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is still an obligation of the state governments,” says Jacqueline Berrien, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But some black and white progressives say this strategy doesn’t get to the fundamental flaw in the system: that the election of black and Hispanic lawmakers is currently subject to the whims of judges and politicians. In most cases, if a minority candidate is elected to Congress, it’s because someone created a district with a large minority population. In that sense, the makeup of Congress is not decided by citizens but by the officials in charge of reapportionment every ten years.
Under this system, “the election is held without any voters present,” complains University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier, whose unconventional views on election reform cost her the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. “The message to African-American voters has been: If you want to get any shot at electing the candidate of your choice, you have to rely on the courts to construct districts that enhance your possibility.” Since most black voters live in majority-white districts, she says, “that’s a very shortsighted strategy, because it doesn’t empower a majority of people.”
The solution Guinier and many others advocate is most often called proportional representation (PR). It’s a system that does away with single-member districts as the sole method of electing legislators. Instead, candidates run from multimember districts and are selected in proportion to the vote their political party receives. Under one plan, devised for North Carolina by voting rights activist Lee Mortimer, the state would be divided into four three-member super-districts. Citizens would be given three votes to cast. They could spread them over three candidates or focus them on a single one. Under Mortimer’s plan, blacks could capture seats in three of the four super-districts. That would leave North Carolina with three black members of Congress, rather than the current two.
PR would allow citizens themselves to decide how they should be grouped together for the purposes of electing representatives. Those with common economic concerns—but who live far apart—can band with one another to back a candidate who addresses their needs. Those who identify with a particular area can join with others who feel the same way and elect a candidate who is promoting issues of concern to that locality.
Although it has never caught on in the United States, PR has proven successful in many European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands. New York held five City Council elections using PR from 1937 to 1945. Those elections helped break the stranglehold of the city’s political machines and elected Adam Clayton Powell as the Council’s first African-American member. PR was repealed in 1947, after two Communists won Council elections. A handful of US cities and counties, including Cambridge, Massachusetts, still use some form of proportional voting.
“This simple change would have profound effects,” writes Douglas Amy, a politics professor at Mount Holyoke College and an expert on alternative voting systems. “It would give voters a much wider set of choices when they go to the polls—something that most Americans say they want. It would mean that more Americans would be represented in our legislatures and have a say in government.”
Cynthia McKinney has introduced a bill that would clear the way for Congressional elections using PR. The bill poses a harsh challenge: convincing politicians to adopt a system that will cost them the near-guarantee of a lifetime seat. Mainline civil rights organizations are reluctant to devote much political capital to the uphill effort. “The practical reality is that unless the McKinney bill passes, the elections must be held from single-member districts,” says the NAACP’s Jacqueline Berrien. “As long as that is true, our advocacy centers on the redistricting process.”
McKinney agrees it will be a tough fight. “The people in charge don’t have any reason to change the system,” she says. “The spinelessness of President Clinton in the treatment of the Lani Guinier nomination prevented the country from engaging in this dialogue on race that he claims he’s interested in having.” But she offers this hope: The 2000 Census is approaching, and with it another round of redistricting. State officials are dreading the prospect of satisfying the Voting Rights Act and the Shawdecision while pleasing voters of all races and political stripes. Perhaps, McKinney suggests, these district-drawers will then be more receptive to the notion of PR. Should the day come when proportional representation is accepted as a solution to the dilemma of redrawing districts, the knotty issue of whether to classify voters by race could then be put aside. And officials like Mel Watt could fully represent their constituents—whatever their ZIP code.