A case the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this term illustrates what happens when good intentions go bad.
The case is from Wisconsin, which is accused of going too far in injecting political favoritism when drawing voting district lines.
We all learned in civics class this is called gerrymandering, a term coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 when a salamander-shaped senate district in Massachusetts had been crafted to support the politics of then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry.
All through U.S. history, a duty of state legislatures at least once every 10 years has been to take a state map and subdivide it. So many districts for the state and U.S. House; so many for the state Senate. (State legislators also define court districts and such; city and county governments draw lines for themselves, school boards, constables, etc.)
Also throughout history, the party with the pencil has had the power to help itself. Redistricting offers the opportunity to create more voter districts favorable to said majority.
Now, to the nub: In Mississippi, everybody knows that race and partisanship are one and the same. With few exceptions, blacks identify with the Democratic Party and whites with the Republican Party. The same pattern applies nationally, of course, but is amplified in states with large minority populations, such as Mississippi.
For some reason, politicians talk around that when it comes to voter districts. Even the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which is at the root of today’s difficulties — is vague on the point.
The now-ancient federal law signed by President Lyndon Johnson was a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act. It was designed to stop the insidious practice in Mississippi and other states of denying black citizens their right to vote.
Section 5 of the act took another positive step. It said certain states (and cities and counties) with a racist history in line-drawing could no longer “illegally dilute minority voting strength.”
The law did not specifically require creation of districts where black voters were in the majority. That’s what had to be done, of course, to stop the Legislature and local governments assuring minority voters would be in the minority in every district of every type.
After lots of fussing, obfuscation and litigation, majority-minority districts were created and for the first time in 100 years, black Mississippians got seats at the table in the Capitol and in courthouses, city halls and school board offices.
That was the up side.
The down side can be illustrated with poker chips. Say there are nine chips, six green and three red. Create three piles so that reds have a majority in at least one. The result: Reds have their own pile or a 2-1 majority in another pile. But in any arrangement, greens will have the majority in two piles.
In Wisconsin and here, the majority (read white, conservative and Republican) has progressively added to its piles. In Mississippi, packing of minorities into “their own” districts has led to more conservative districts.
The question before the Supreme Court is euphemistically whether Democrats have been disenfranchised.
The wonderful intention of the Voting Rights Act was to bring people together, reasoning that if people sat together they’d work together. Instead, silos resulted. An argument could be made that the good intentions of 1965 actually sparked the extreme divisiveness that exists across the national landscape today.
A Supreme Court decision a few years ago modified and updated the act. Now proof of racial discrimination is required. But Congress will not touch the act or admit there’s a problem, as there is with so many well-intended but flawed programs — Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Care Act. Instead, they’re all kicked around as political footballs.
There is a solution. California and three other states now have voting districts drawn by independent commissions tasked to meet voter-centered, common sense requirements instead of political goals. So far, Mississippi is one of the majority where politics (aka race) still comes first.
It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that the racial divide will ever be bridged if the seats of public policy tables are filled with black people elected from black districts and white people elected from white districts. No motivation to converse; no motivation to solve challenges; no motivation to seek solutions.
The Supreme Court decision, when it comes, will come from a split court with both sides begging the other to listen to their better angels and play fair. That won’t happen. We’re talking power politics and a systemic problem Congress continues to ignore.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.