The Voting Rights Act requires states, under some situations, to create legislative and congressional districts where minorities are a majority of the district’s population.1 Majority-minority districts are intended to remedy vote dilution and ensure minorities have a fair chance to participate in the political process. This prescription worked: beginning in the 1990s majority-minority districts are credited with increasing minority representation in legislatures and Congress.
Yet from the start, some conventional wisdom took hold about how majority-minority districts resulted in unfair maps. The widespread belief became that majority-minority districts, particularly in the South, gave Republicans a big and unfair advantage. According to this narrative, heavily concentrating reliably Democratic voters in majority-minority districts bleached the surrounding districts. These bleached districts, which had a history of electing white Democrats, then flipped and began electing Republicans. Some political commentators have even argued that majority-minority districts were a significant factor in the 54-seat swing in House seats in the 1994 election, giving the GOP control of the chamber for the first time in 42 years.
Insofar as it goes, there is some truth in the narrative. The lack of minority-majority districts before 1990 had preserved the incumbency of many white Democrats even as southern white voters were shifting en masse towards the Republican Party. Ben Ginsberg, general counsel to the Republican National Committee in 1990 and one of the principal architects of the GOP strategy to urge creation of majority-minority districts, recalled, We began looking at the data, and we saw that white Southern Democrats had dominated the redistricting process literally since the Civil War, and that had created underrepresentation for two groups: Republicans and minority voters.
Rep. Bobby Scott, an African-American Democrat first elected to Congress after Virginia’s 3rd Congressional district was redrawn as a majority-minority district, told The <i>New Yorker<i>'s Jeffrey Toobin in 1993 that before the 1990s the strategy for preserving artificially large Democratic majorities was to keep African-American percentages at around thirty-five or forty per cent. That was enough for the white Democrats to keep winning these districts, but not enough to elect any black Democrats. The white Democrats called these influence districts.
But while Republicans derived some level of benefit from rapid growth in majority-minority districts after 1990 in the South, the question is whether that advantage means that creating majority-minority districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act is inherently at odds with the goal of partisan fairness. Some have argued that is the case. For example, the Republican National Congressional Committee has argued in recent court filings that a [proposed] test for partisan gerrymandering creates conflicts between districting and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
In other words, you can have one or the other but not both. With the Supreme Court set to take up the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, it is an apt time to test the thesis of inherent tension.
It turns out the answer is an emphatic no. The authors reviewed three decades of redistricting in twenty states with majority-minority districts and found that the creation of these districts did not result in biased maps. In fact, if anything, majority-minority districts tended to reduce overall partisan bias.