Color-Coded Congressmen

Follow the long, thin trail of North Carolina's new 12th Congressional District, winding 150 miles down Interstate 85, and the troubled evolution of the 1965 Voting Rights Act becomes clear. To collect enough black voters to elect one more minority representative, the political mapmakers have cut through the middle of another district, chewed off pieces of 10 counties and linked two distant cities, Charlotte and Durham, that never before saw themselves as a team. It may seem messy and hurt white Democrats, said Rep. John Conyers of the Congressional Black Caucus, but "it is the price we pay for freedom."

A generation ago, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to free black Southerners from poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers to the ballot. It worked wonderfully-1.5 million new voters registered in just the first two years. But the law's bar against the "denial or abridgment" of the right to vote has come to mean more than just guaranteed admission to the voting booth. The U.S. Department of Justice has the power to push states to take every possible opportunity to increase minority representation. After almost three decades of lawsuits, court interpretations, administrative fiats and confounding congressional amendments, the Voting Rights Act has been turned into something its framers never imagined: a racial and ethnic gerrymandering machine.

The act serves many masters, and almost no one with political power objects. Conservative Republicans embrace the act as a way to drain Democratic-voting minorities out of neighboring districts and leave them ripe for the GOP. Civil-rights activists see it as a way to wedge more minorities into Congress and state legislatures, even if it means using exotic devices like "cumulative voting." Already successful in concentrating minority votes in local races in Alabama and Texas, the cumulative system gives each voter as many votes as there are seats to fill in an at-large election, but permits all those votes to go to one candidate.

Whites once used rules even more bizarre to dilute black voting power in the South, but that does not, to some, make the new schemes palatable. Many political scientists and even some black politicians argue that abuse of the Voting Rights Act is beginning to threaten the democratic, antiracist principles that were present at its creation. "I think it is very, very bad news for this society that we are pasting on everybody ethnic and racial labels and divvying up various pies accordingly," says political scientist Abigail M. Thernstrom, author of "Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights." Most of the voters who made Douglas Wilder Virginia's first black governor were white, something he remembered when pressed for more black-majority districts. "If it hasn't been shown that you don't have to do that to be elected to Congress," he said, "then myelection meant absolutely nothing."

Instead of encouraging interracial coalitions, the act has bred dissension. Hispanics and blacks in Los Angeles have battled over how to allot city council seats. Whites in Texas and Florida have been chided for running in minority districts. In New York, local political leaders hissed at the decision of Stephen J. Solarz, the influential Jewish congressman shorn of his old district during reapportionment, to run in a new Hispanic-majority district; the primary is this week. "He is not violating the law by running in this district, but he is certainly violating the spirit and intent of the law," said former Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund president Ruben Franco, one of Solarz's five Hispanic opponents.

Yet after spending $400,000 on television ads and risking his high-school Spanish on long strolls through the new district, Solarz found some Hispanics rallying to him. "Why would it be wrong for him to run?" said Monserrate Gonzalez, a Brooklyn shoe-store manager. "He's got to go out and represent the whole community and that doesn't have anything to do with race."

There is no question that the Voting Rights Act has made legislatures more representative. There are now 26 blacks in the U.S. House of Representatives. The new reapportionment is expected to increase that number to about 38, 8.7 percent of the total (compared with 12.1 percent of the U.S. population). Hispanics in Congress may nearly double in number to 19. But as the face of America changes, these categories seem rather unsatisfactory. Even Anglo politicians know that Hispanics with Cuban parents are very different from those with families in Mexico. And how long will it be before seats are carved out for Chinese, Indochinese or Korean representatives? Making ethnicity the touchstone of voting also violates what Thernstrom calls "the fluidity of categories." She says, "Depending on the issues, in one election I may think of myself primarily as a female voter and in another as a suburbanite."

Looking to make other districts whiter, Republicans are welcoming the minority surge as if the GOP were suddenly a member of the Rainbow Coalition. "White Democrats have sliced and diced minority groups to ensure the election of white liberal Democrats," said Republican National Committee general counsel Benjamin Ginsberg. Now Republicans retaliate by backing new Mexican-American districts in California and criticizing Democratic attorneys who oppose more minority seats in Ohio and Florida.

Civil-rights workers who support the act suggest patience. "Despite the fact that we have had 20 years under the Voting Rights Act, we have not yet broken down the walls" of white reluctance to vote for blacks, says Ed Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. Interracial coalitions can still thrive in minority districts, says Frank R. Parker of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a view buttressed by the June primary in North Carolina's serpentine 12th District. Former state senator Melvin Watt, who is black, beat several other black Democrats by appealing for white votes, and is favored to win the seat against black Republican attorney Barbara Gore Washington. Parker says his hope is that the new minority officeholders will show how well they can govern, further weaken the reluctance of whites to vote for minorities and make more concentrated districts unnecessary.

Thernstrom sees a very different future. You are going to have a whole new group of incumbents coming into Congress and into state legislatures who are going to have a vested interest in the districts as they are drawn," she said. Even that may not quiet the urge to refine racial voting. The real problem with the act now, said Timothy G. O'Rourke of Clemson University, "is that it is anchored by no concrete standards at all ... The current act must always fall short of success because its goal of fair results will be continually redefined so as to lie just beyond the current reality"--or just past the next bend in Interstate 85, where a new district line could veer in almost any direction.