Minority Majority Districts


Through the VRA, the federal government moved to guarantee access for all citizens to the ballot. Even so, the right to vote did not necessarily translate into electing representatives for voters who were in the minority. In jurisdictions, particularly in the South, voters who historically had faced racial discrimination (African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Americans and Native Americans) had been unable to elect candidates of their choice unless they constituted a majority of voters in a given electoral district. In 1982, Congress amended the VRA to include requirements that certain jurisdictions provide minority voters opportunities to elect candidates of their choice.

Initially, these jurisdictions turned minority populations into a majority through re-drawing legislative districts. This created an overall racial majority from a formerly minority population in a particular district. But this approach has serious drawbacks, especially when a minority group is not centralized, but is dispersed geographically or interspersed with other groups of voters. Consequently, these race-conscious districts encountered setbacks at the Supreme Court, which outlawed explicit “racial gerrymanders.”

As a result of many legal disputes and public controversies concerning effective minority representation, courts have ordered ward-based systems (single-member districts) as remedies in vote dilution cases. This supports the notion that the best determinant of a black candidate’s electoral success is the racial composition of the electoral jurisdictions. But in the 1993 Supreme Court decision of Shaw v. Reno, the Court declared that a North Carolina reapportionment scheme constituted racial gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This ruling allows white voters to object to what they perceive as racially motivated districting. Cases similar to Shaw, and cases resulting from the Shaw decision filled the courts. Voting rights attorneys, civil rights groups, and community activists defended majority minority voting districts and to protect them in light of the Shaw decision.

Many would agree that the VRA is perhaps the most significant piece of legislation designed to secure minority electoral rights. However, the VRA is vulnerable to attack on the grounds that it may overextend its original mandate. Some have argued that proponents of the VRA have confused the “right to vote” with the “right to be elected.” Many people of color have won federal, state, and local elections. Their success may not have been possible without such aggressive policy measures as the VRA. Yet despite the protections of the VRA, courts continue to address controversies surrounding new methods to dilute the collective strength of black voters.

The creation of majority-black districts has been the overarching federal policy regarding minority representation after the VRA was enacted. Even so, there are many views about the need and effectiveness of majority-black districts. Likewise, the case of Shaw v. Reno places majority-black districting in a somewhat tenuous position as more and more groups of whites begin to assert that redistricting plans have resulted in a new kind of “political apartheid,” preventing them from full and effective use of the ballot. Efforts continue to work out a solution that passes constitutional muster and it remains to be seen what that solution will be.