Voting Rights and You

Sections of the Voting Act were weakened over the summer because of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Texas is currently in a battle with the Dept. of Justice over their new voter identification law. These things are sewn together by remnants of the U.S. Civil War.

Immediately after the war ended in 1865, white males who fought against the Union lost their right to vote. At the same time, black men gained the right to vote. All over the former Confederacy, black men were elected to governorships and the Senate. But even a well-earned imbalance is still an imbalance. As the period known as Reconstruction ended, rich white men made compromises that saw them regain their voting rights. Like before, an imbalance was fought with another imbalance: There were suddenly new requirements to vote–literacy tests, poll taxes–not to mention general efforts to physically keep them away from the voting booth by organizations like the Klu Klux Klan.

Most of these things were cleared up legally in the 1960s by the Voting Rights Act. Since the South was seen as the most egregious violator, special rules were enacted. The states of the former Confederacy (and a couple out West) had to submit their redistricting plans to federal officials for approval before they could take effect to make sure black voters weren’t being gerrymandered into nothingness. As recently as the last few years, then Mississippi governor Haley Barbour said the process was not a problem, and he had no intention of joining with some of the other states to challenge the provision in court.

Every 10 years, using the results of the decennial census are used to remap the voting districts. That state governments have used this to increase the power of their political party in the state should come as no surprise. It’s been going on since the term “gerrymandering” was coined in 1812. Now the demographics of the United States are changing unlike any period in the country’s history. This has some white males afraid, so in Texas, a group found ways to minimize the Hispanic voters so they’d be less of an issue for members of their political party for the next decade. The U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, took issue with this and has started legal proceedings to stop it.

It all seems on the up and up until you consider Mississippi where the former governor had no problem with the federal oversight provisions. Mississippi has the lowest percentage of white citizens of any state at 59.9%. Black people are the largest minority and make up 37.3% of the state’s population. Mississippi has four members of the House of Representatives. One of those, Congressman Bennie Thompson, has a district that runs the length of the state that touches the Mississippi River and juts in to take a county or two inward in places if those counties have large percentages of black voters. It’s gerrymander-ific! It also means that the nearly 40% black population is lumped so they effect only 25% of our representation in the House.

How, you ask, can it be so if the federal government approves the districting plans? There are two possible answers: First, they don’t care; second, they like it that way. Government never likes change. Mississippi is the state closest to the tipping point for a non-white majority. The inequalities of the past generally keep Mississippi at the bottom of national rankings–that is, historically worse educational opportunities for a growing, soon-to-be majority black population mean that a line had to be drawn to protect white privilege for as long as possible. Who but white men from Ole Miss can save the black population from themselves?

To bring this back to the main thesis of this article, if you think about what the federal government has no problem (40% of the population in one superdistrict), you can only imagine what’s laying in wait in Texas, a state where everything is bigger–especially fear of minorities.

I write this because I haven’t seen this point raised in any news story or editorial I have read about the situation.