By THOMAS B. EDSALL July 10, 2013, 9:34 pm
To understand the depth of the damage that the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, has inflicted on the voting rights of African-Americans, you have to measure it against the backdrop of the takeover of state legislatures, primarily in the South, by the Republican Party.
Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the number of blacks elected to Southern state legislatures has grown from fewer than five to 313, all but a handful as Democrats. While blacks rose in the once dominant Democratic Party, Southern whites defected. Now, in the former Confederacy, Republicans have gained control of all 11 state legislatures.
Despite their growing numbers, the power of Southern blacks has been dissipated. African-American Democratic officials — according to data compiled from academic research and the Web sites of state legislatures — have been relegated to minority party status. Equally important, an estimated 86 African-Americans who spent years accumulating seniority have lost their chairmanships of state legislative committees to white Republicans.
The loss of these committee positions has meant the loss of the power to set agendas, push legislation to the floor, and call hearings. At the state level, “black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era,” wroteDavid A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a 2011 paper, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?”
The 2010 midterm elections, in which Republicans took over state legislatures across the country, were devastating to Southern blacks. But the Republican surge in the South, in fact, began in an earlier election: the Gingrich-led revolution of 1994.
Bositis charts growing Republican strength in the South in Figure 1, which shows that before the 1994 election, only one out of 202 black elected officials in Southern legislatures was in the minority party. After the 1994 contest, the number of Southern blacks in the minority party grew to 46 out of 260. In the aftermath of the 2010-11 elections, the proportion of Southern blacks serving in the majority – that is, the party controlling the state legislature — dropped to just 15 out of 313. In less than 20 years, the percentage of black legislators in the South serving in the majority fell from 99.5 percent to 4.8 percent.
The transition from Democratic to Republican hegemony in the South reached completion in 2012 when the Arkansas Legislature turned Republican, putting every Southern Democratic legislator in the minority.
Republicans are currently entrenched, backed by decisive majorities of white voters. Republican legislators in the South have, in turn, moved aggressively on two fronts to secure their power: by designing legislative and Congressional districts minimizing Democratic prospects and by moving ahead with legislation designed to suppress voting under the guise of combating voter fraud.
What stands out, looking at the data, is how effective, in purely political terms, the Republican’s “white” strategy has turned out to be at the state level. Nationally, the party is enmeshed in an often bitter debate between those who argue that future success lies in building margins and turnout rates among whites, making little effort to woo minorities — or in fact actively scorning them; and those, on the other hand, who believe that this strategy can no longer work as the population of minority voters grows.
Republicans in control of redistricting have two goals: the defeat of white Democrats, and the creation of safe districts for Republicans. They have achieved both of these goals by increasing the number of districts likely to elect an African-American. Black voters are gerrymandered out of districts represented by whites of both parties, making the Democratic incumbent weaker and the Republican incumbent stronger.
Take Mississippi. In the state’s 2012 redistricting, all of the decisively black legislative districts – where 60 percent or more of the voters are African-American – have been preserved, and four new majority-black districts have been created. This, in turn, has allowed Republicans to reduce the percentage of blacks in districts where Republican incumbents had close contests in Mississippi’s 2011 off-year elections.
While increasing the number of blacks elected to state legislatures, Republicans have been effectively implementing their long-range goal of decimating the number of white Democrats. Depending on local demographics, this has been achieved in two ways.
Where possible, Republican redistricting strategists have reduced the number of blacks in white Democratic legislative districts in order to render the incumbent vulnerable to Republican challenge. In other areas of the state, where it has not been not possible to “bleach” a district, Republicans have sharply increased the percentage of blacks to over 50 percent in order to encourage a successful black challenge to the white Democratic incumbent.
In private discussions, Republicans in the South talk explicitly about their goal of turning the Democratic Party into a black party, and in many Southern states they have succeeded. African-American legislators make up the majority of state House and Senate Democratic caucuses in most of the Southern states.
The attack by Republicans on black political power has not, however, been limited to the South. Republican takeovers of either or both branches of the State Legislatures in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan have pushed black elected officials into the minority and out of committee chairmanships and leadership posts.
All of the legislation — voter IDs, restriction of early voting and reduced polling hours — seeking to suppress turnout among blacks, Hispanics and the poor emanates overwhelmingly from Republican legislatures and has been approved over the angry objections of black legislators and Democrats generally.
Voter suppression and redistricting are simply mechanisms with which to gain and hold power. What is ultimately important is what is done with that power.
North Carolina has, in this respect, become a Tea Party test tube, a state where intensely conservative Republicans wrested full control of the Legislature in 2010.
On June 16, Rob Christensen, a reporter at the Raleigh News and Observer, summarized the major Republican legislative actions of 2012-2013. These included:
- Repeal of a state Earned Income Tax Credit program providing tax benefits to the working poor.
- Cuts in Medicaid eligibility for poor women from 185 percent of poverty to 133 percent of the poverty level.
- Reduction of eligibility for unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 12 to 20 weeks, depending on circumstances.
- Repeal of the 2009 Racial Justice Act allowing those sentenced to death to use statistical evidence of discrimination in death penalty appeals.
Legislation like this has particularly harsh consequences for blacks, Hispanics and the poor generally, and reflects what the loss of political power means.
After the censuses of 1990, 2000 and 2010, Republicans demonstrated superior skill in controlling the election of the state legislators who draw new district lines — and superior deftness in the mechanics of creating new districts.
“Republicans had a years-long strategy of winning state houses in order to control each state’s once-a-decade redistricting process,”Pro Publica reported in December 2012.
The approach paid off. In 2010 state races, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining complete control of 12 state legislatures. As a result, the G.O.P. oversaw redrawing of lines for four times as many Congressional districts as Democrats.
The long-term importance of Republican success controlling the redistricting process is that it provides the party with a tool to counter the growing strength of black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Republican control of Congressional district lines in 2012 allowed the party to maintain a 34-seat majority in the United States House of Representatives while winning one million fewer votes than the Democrats over all.
As the United States moves inexorably toward becoming a minority majority country, the Republican Party needs every available weapon to survive what it perceives as a siege. The Shelby County v. Holder decision issued by the five conservative members of the Supreme Court gives Republicans even wider latitude to use the manipulation of district lines through “bleaching,” “packing” and “cracking,” in order to maintain its control over state legislatures. This, in turn, grants Republicans control of the House of Representatives.
For Republicans deeply afraid that the 47 percent will soon be the 51 percent, the House is the last line of defense. The party and its backers have immense financial resources that have proved of mixed value in presidential and senatorial races. These resources, according to Pro Publica, were put to highly effective use in legislative races that are individually much cheaper and more susceptible to cash from the “dark money” conservative tax-exempt organizations, now major players in these less closely observed races.
As Karl Rove wrote candidly in The Wall Street Journal on March 10, 2010, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” The Republican Party will fight tooth and nail to maintain and expand its domination of state legislatures, a battle Democrats have not fully engaged. Insofar as Republicans fight harder than Democrats, the biggest losers will be black Democratic legislators who remain on the periphery as programs serving their constituencies get axed.
Democrats often sound gleeful about the idea of Republicans’ becoming the white party. They have successfully elected and re-elected the nation’s first black president. But in the South and in some Northern states, the Republican takeover of state legislatures has left black and Hispanic citizens without effective representation – representation that can come only from the majority party. The racialization of the two parties, most noticeable in the South, will work to keep minority Americans at the margins of power, hindered from shaping the policies that determine social and economic mobility and the overall quality of life.