Supreme Court Finally Fixes the Voting Rights Act

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court finally tossed out the antiquated formula that brought a number of states and counties, including four here in California, under the federal Voting Rights Act.  The outcry from the usual suspects has been ferocious, that the Court decimated minority voting rights by finding that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is so outdated as to be unconstitutional.  Count on hysterical editorials from our state’s leading liberal newspapers as well as the gaggle of law school professors who follow this stuff.

But in fact the coverage formula should never have been renewed by the Congress in 2006, and in 2009 the Supreme Court warned them that it was probably unconstitutional.  Now it is. 

The Voting Rights Act has had huge bipartisan support because minority Democrats love it as it forces creation of “majority minority” legislative and congressional districts, and Republicans love it for exactly the same reason, it ghettoizes minority votes into a handful of heavily Democratic districts, thereby wasting millions of Democratic votes.  Democrats were chagrined to see in 2012 that they won a plurality of votes for Congress but Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.  How did that happen?  Republican gerrymandering in several states helped but the biggest factor was concentration of minority Democrats into Voting Rights Act districts.  For all the Democratic wailing about the obstructionist GOP House, that’s the reason why.

In California, the Voting Rights Act had a somewhat different impact; it helped to destroy effective representation in a number of districts, primarily in the Central Valley.  The now unconstitutional coverage formula brought the counties of Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba under the Act.  These counties had nothing to do with minority voting rights, but all four had large military bases during the Vietnam War and the formula caused them to be covered.  It was an absurdity when it occurred and was compounded over the decades until finally the Supreme County threw out the formula yesterday.

In 2011, the Citizens Redistricting Commission interpreted the Voting Rights Act that it had to draw districts in these counties with exactly the same minority percentages as the old gerrymandered  2001 plan it was replacing, and that in itself was an absurdity.  The old 16th Senate district, which is undergoing a special election right now, consists of part of the city of Fresno and part of the city of Bakersfield, connected through long hooks and fingers to unite minority population in both cities.  But the two cities are miles apart, have different media markets and little in common.

However, the Commission interpreted the Voting Rights Act to require hacking up Fresno and Bakersfield on racial lines such that neither city is wholly contained in single Assembly, Senate or Congressional district.  This was forced on the Commission, so it claimed, by the fact that Kings County, a VRA covered county, was situated between the two cities.

In 2001, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a plan to draw a highly gerrymandered Senate district for then-Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) that combined Merced County with Salinas in Monterey County, both VRA counties.  The district made no sense except in partisan terms, although Cardoza did not run for it and Republicans actually have won it three times.

But when the Commission redrew the Senate districts in 2011, their attorneys convinced them that Merced and Salinas should remain in the same district, even though they are a mountain range apart with nothing in common and testimony was received from both places that they did not want this illogical district.  The ridiculous impact of this was to actually deny Latinos, the supposed beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act in California, an additional Senate district.  If Salinas had been combined with heavily Latino San Jose, a Latino Senate district would have emerged, but that did not happen.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not “gut” the Voting Rights Act, other sections still allow citizens to challenge the way districts are drawn if they can prove racial gerrymandering or denial of minority voting opportunities.  But the Court did finally say enough is enough to an outdated formula that never should have brought California under this part of the Voting Rights Act in the first place.

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