WSJ Hints Voting Rights Act Has Harmed Prospects of Blacks Holding Senate, Governor Seats

"Fifty years after Martin Luther King delivered his landmark 'I Have a Dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial, which will be celebrated at a public ceremony Wednesday in Washington, African-American progress in the political arena has been spotty," Peter Nicholas and Neil King Jr. of the Wall Street Journal noted in a page A4 article on Wednesday headlined "Uneven Election Success for Black Politicians."

While the Journal staffers didn't explicitly make the connection, it turns out that an unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act's majority-minority House districts has been to restrict the pool of black House candidates who are moderate enough to appeal to a statewide, much less nationwide electorate (emphases mine):


Over the last four decades, black elected officials in the U.S. jumped from fewer than 1,500 to as many as 11,000, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization. But in the nation's history, only three African-Americans have won Senate elections by popular vote: Mr. Obama, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey would be the fourth, should he defeat Republican Steve Lonegan in a special election next month.

One illustration of the challenge black politicians face is that no black member of the House, and no black mayor, has ever run successfully since Reconstruction for the Senate or for governor. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, a civil-rights lawyer and former Justice Department senior official, currently is the nation's lone black governor.

Scholars and lawmakers say one reason is that most black House members represent districts that are heavily Democratic and heavily minority, meaning they often don't need to appeal to a diverse set of voters.

"Representing a primarily black constituency sets you on a political path that makes it hard to recalibrate for a statewide race," said Artur Davis, a former Alabama congressman who lost a bid for governor in 2010, and has since left the Democratic Party.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat now in his fourth term, cites money as an impediment. "As long as minority congressional members represent districts that tend to be lower income, then your funding base is going to be smaller, which will put you at a dollar disadvantage when you want to run for statewide office," he said.

The success of black politicians nationally has been closely tied to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protected minority voting rights and led to the creation of dozens of majority-minority House districts, particularly after the 1990 Census. Black House members rose from 24 to 39 in the two elections after the 1991 redistricting.

In the decade when Dr. King gave his speech, blacks won 1.7% of House races, according to Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. By 2012, that figure had jumped to about 10%, but still less than their 13% portion of the nation's total population.

At the same time, concentrating black voters in a few dozen districts has benefited the GOP; if African-Americans, a reliable Democratic constituency, were spread over more districts, they could have made that party's candidates competitive in additional districts. Blacks made their biggest gains ever in the House in 1994—the same year the GOP gained 54 seats and took control of the body for the first time in decades. Last year, Mr. Obama won the national vote by five million votes but won just 209 of the 435 House districts.

So to review, there are three unintended consequences of the Voting Rights Act has been a concentration of largely-Democratic black voters in non-competitive districts and the resulting absence of those reliably Democratic votes from districts which elect Republicans.

First, were it not for those racially gerrymandered districts, more Republicans would have to conduct better messaging and outreach to take a bigger bite of the black vote. Competition would ultimately force improvement in Republican outreach to black voters who have long been elusive. Secondly, absent the safety net of a racially-gerrymandered district, black Democrats would have a more moderate and politically diverse constituency and have to campaign and govern accordingly. Third, because most African-American House members are in gerrymandered, partisan districts, their appeal to a wider, more ideologically diverse electorate is minimal, if non-existent. Unable to have a good shot at the Senate or governor's mansions, they are ghettoized in the House where their political fortunes are minimal.

[You may recall that the senior-most black Democrat in the House is Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who inhabits a position created out of thin air by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called "Assistant Minority Leader," which ranks below Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the 2nd banana of the Democratic caucus.]

While MSNBC and other liberal outlets are busy hyping liberal outrage over the "gutting" of the VRA by the Supreme Court, a rational discussion of the landmark legislation would examine the ways in which it has had unintended consequences which have worked in a detrimental fashion to both racial and ideological diversity in our national politics.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters