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Intro­duc­tion

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.