The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and included a number of "emergency" provisions that were set to expire as early as 1970 but were extended and amended in 1970, 1975 and 1982. They will soon be extended for a fourth time, two years before they are due to expire--and for another 25 years. This bipartisan rush illustrates the descent of the residue of the civil-rights movement into the barren politics of gesture and nostalgia. The eager participation of Republicans demonstrates cravenness and two kinds of opportunism, one deservedly futile, the other disgracefully successful.
The VRA ranks above Social Security, the GI Bill of Rights and other landmark legislation as the 20th century's noblest and most transformative law. Before it, African-Americans in the South depended on something undependable--the kindness of strangers. Largely excluded from the electorate, they could not compel the good will of the political class. Until 1965, when swift change began.
Today there are 43 African-American members of the House and Senate and more than 9,000 elected state and local officials. The state with the largest number? Mississippi. Second and third? Alabama and Louisiana. So why the continuing pretense that the right to vote is, for African-Americans, precarious and, unless the full VRA is preserved forever, perishable? One reason is that prominent Democrats, with their habit of seizing their own party's jugular, present the party as a bad, although practiced, loser. They assert what evidence refutes--"disenfranchising" (John Kerry's word) "a million" (Kerry's number) African-American voters in 2000, and the "suppression" (Howard Dean's word) of African-American votes in Ohio in 2004. Such meretricious laments encourage some African-American leaders to strike familiar sterile poses of victimhood. For some civil-rights organizations that are reluctant to recast their mission in response to their successes, and for some African-American leaders comfortable with a vocabulary of angry complaint 40 years old, renewal of the VRA's initially temporary provisions is a comfortable and unstrenuous, although irrelevant, project.
Consider the "preclearance" provision that requires certain jurisdictions get the federal government's permission to make any change--even as small as moving a polling place--in electoral arrangements. The places bound by the preclearance provision are identified by a formula based on minority participation in elections more than three decades ago. The results are weird. Virginia is covered, West Virginia is not. Arizona is covered, New Mexico is not. Texas is covered, Arkansas is not. Three boroughs of New York City--Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx--are covered, Queens and Staten Island are not.
Preserving such antiquarian nonsense is, for Democrats, easy obeisance to clamorous supporters. For Republicans it is a grovel intended to make them attractive to African-Americans and to immunize them against Democratic demagoguery such as Howard Dean's synthetic anguish about "rolling back the right to vote." Furthermore, for two decades Republicans have connived at using the VRA to enhance their congressional strength, at the cost of deepening the polarization and Balkanization of the electorate.
In his 2006 edition of "The Almanac of American Politics," Michael Barone notes that in 2004 George W. Bush received only 51 percent of the vote, yet carried 59 percent of the congressional districts. And John Kerry won 80 percent or more of the vote in 20 districts, but in no district did Bush win 80 percent. One reason for this, Barone says, is the Voting Rights Act:
"Under the prevailing interpretation of this act, redistricters are obliged to maximize the number of districts with majorities or near-majorities of blacks and Hispanics. That means that redistricters bunch very large numbers of heavily Democratic precincts into a few districts and keep them out of adjacent districts where the political balance is much closer. The Voting Rights Act, thus interpreted, tends to result in the election of more blacks and Hispanics and fewer Democrats."
In those 20 "80 percent-plus" Kerry districts, a lot of Kerry votes that could have elected Democrats to Congress from adjacent districts were wasted as superfluous votes in landslide wins for Democratic candidates. That is why, says Barone, in the redistricting in some states after the 1990 and 2000 censuses, Republican legislators collaborated with African-American legislators to create "minority-majority" districts. And Republicans, who run in artificially white districts, wonder why they never learn how to court African-Americans in presidential elections.
Race-conscious redistricting--giving a few government-favored groups entitlements to elective offices--arises from the theory of categorical representation. That is the theory that the interests of people in certain racial or ethnic categories can be understood, sympathized with, articulated and advanced only by representatives of those categories. This is pernicious nonsense but, like every bit of the VRA, is here to stay.