Remember the big fuss about a month ago over the Virginia Senate Republicans’ plot to ram a redistricting bill through a tied chamber while one Democratic senator was at the inauguration?
The New York Times parroted the Democrats’ argument in a headline saying the bill “hurts blacks.” It certainly would have altered most of the Democratic senators’ seats, though none of the five in majority-minority districts. But the plan would have also drawn a new majority-minority district in Southside, correcting the current arrangement that is possibly in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s a situation worth remembering as the Supreme Court takes up a challenge to the Voting Rights Act and Democrats seek to paint it as an indispensable bulwark against Republican electoral tinkering. To Virginia Democrats, at least, the VRA is only a priority when it’s to their political advantage.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to mean that in a given area, if minorities constitute more than half of the voting population, they should be grouped in the same district, according to the 2009 Supreme Court decision Bartlett v. Strickland. The proposed 25th senate district in the Virginia Republicans’ plan would have done just that. Sen. John C. Watkins told the Star-Tribune that the new district would be 56.2 percent African-American. Whether the current coalition districts, with predominantly black areas drawn in to shore up other Democrats, violates the VRA is up to a court to decide under Section 5. A good case could probably be made, though don’t expect Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make it. (See a map and statistics here.)
Most majority-minority districts are in urban areas. What’s interesting about this proposed new 25th is that it would have been the first fully rural majority-minority senate district in the state, owing to the unique demographics of Southside–whites tend to concentrate in towns and blacks in the hinterland.
Virginia’s senate has had five majority-minority districts for 22 years, while the number has increased in the House of Delegates. The Democratic leadership opposed creating a sixth majority-minority district in Southside in the 2011 redistricting process, and has since.
Louise Lucas’s district, which contains about 40 percent of the area of the proposed 25th, is half rural, jutting east into the Tidewater as other black areas in Norfolk and Virginia Beach were cordoned off in 2011 to shore up Eastern Shore Senator Ralph Northam. That’s basically the Democrats’ logic; split up black areas into coalition districts to make them more competitive.
“Plans that dilute minority voting strength by failing to create feasible majority-minority districts may be quickly challenged following adoption,” advises the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, in a section on their website on majority-minority districts. The 1991 redistricting created similar disputes, with the Republican Party and the ACLU both opposing what they saw as minority vote dilution by Democrats.
After the redistricting bill passed in the Senate this January Senator Creigh Deeds, a former gubernatorial candidate whose seat would have been eliminated under the Republican plan, rose to give a bizarre speech in praise of Stonewall Jackson. This is an edited version: