At The Nation, Ari Berman has an important and exhaustive article on the GOP’s use of its control over redistricting in southern states to draw congressional and state legislative maps in a way that undermines biracial coalitions that might support Democratic candidates. The basic device, known in legal circles as “packing” and “bleaching,” involves isolating African-American voters in heavily majority-black districts, reducing or eliminating their influence in majority-white districts.
Southern veterans of the redistricting wars remember how powerful these practices were during the 1990s redistricting cycle, which contributed (along with other factors, particularly large-scale retirements of Democratic incumbents) to the 1994 GOP takeover of the U.S. House, and to the partisan realignment of the South. As Berman notes, one big thing that has changed since then, however, is that civil rights groups and African-American politicians, who once cooperated with GOP “packing” efforts in order to give African-American incumbents safe seats (or to put it another way, to consolidate fragile gains), are now generally on the other side of the barricades.
Complicating the picture considerably is that the federal courts, and particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, are in a state of chronic disarray in terms of its interpretation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it comes to race-conscious gerrymandering. And even as Republican pols and lawyers have sought to utilize the VRA tactically to defend “packing” and “bleaching,” they and their friends on the bench have inched closer each year to a major challenge to the VRA and its Section 5 “preclearance” provision that requires (mainly) southern jurisdictions to submit redistricting plans to the Justice Department for a ruling on their impact on minority voting rights.
Speaking of the Justice Department, Berman notes considerable dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s Civil Rights Division relative passivity towards GOP redistricting maneuvers, but also suggests the administration may be saving its political capital for even more fundamental challenges to the right to vote posed by Republican state legislators around the country.
The one thing that is very clear is that Democrats and minority voters alike are paying a high price for the Donkey Party’s poor performance in 2010, on the very brink of decennial reapportionment.