Voting rights and voting wrongs

The Spring issue of National Affairs, an exciting new journal of ideas, has been out for some time. I finally read it on the way home from a business trip earlier this week.
The issue features one outstanding article after another. For example, there’s Donald Marron’s harrowing piece about America’s debt crisis; Tevi Troy’s fascinating history of the relationship between modern presidents and intellectuals; and Yuval Levin’s effort to “recover[] the case for capitalism.” Levin characterizes that case as

an argument for individual freedom amid moral order, and for prosperity sustained by sympathy and discipline. It is an odd modern hybrid, a conservative case for the liberal society. As such, it is also an integral piece of the case for America.

Then, there is Abigail Thernstrom’s penetrating review of the history of the Voting Rights Act. Thernstrom demonstrates how “that once magnificent statute has become a barrier to the political integration that was its original aim.”
The Voting Rights Act was corrupted by the persistence of racial gerrymandering to create “safe” districts for minorities long after the case for such gerrymandering — mainly the unwillingness of more than a small portion of the white electorate to vote for a black candidate — has vanished. Thernstrom describes the multiple ills that have resulted from this corruption.
For one thing, politicians who seek office in safe black districts usually confine their appeal to a rigidly left-wing niche. Thus, talented politicians like James Clyburn in South Carolina have no prospects for obtaining state-wide office.
Indeed, Barack Obama probably would never have advanced beyond the House of Representatives had he been elected to Congress in the majority-black district in Chicago where he ran in 2000. In the words of voting rights lawyer Michael Carvin, if Obama had won “he would have just become another mouth-piece for a group that is ghettoized in Congress and perceived as representing certain interest groups in the legislature.”
The creation of majority-black districts also promotes political apathy among black voters. Voter turnout in such districts is consistently, and often shockingly, low.
And, of course, the creation of safe minority districts tends to “bleach” the surrounding districts. They typically become safely Republican. This, in turns, promotes political polarization.
Finally, as Justice O’Connor once wrote, creating safe black districts is “an effort to segregate voters on the basis of race.” As such, it tends, in O’Connors words “to stigmatize indiviiduals by reason of their race” and also to marginalize some voters by the same reason. Indeed, quite apart from its consequences, such segregation is wrong in itself.
Thernstrom concludes:

The [Voting Rights Act] compels us to keep race at the center of our political process, suggests to aspiring black politicians that they should confine themselves to racially safe ground, and encourages black voters to retain a deep pessimism about white racial attitudes that no longer seems justified by the realities of American life.

Congress isn’t about to pull the plug on this anachronistic intrusion by the federal government into the affairs of the states. Let’s hope the Supreme Court, which seemed to flirt with the idea of doing so in 2008, does it at the next opportunity.


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