A Federal Court Just Struck a Blow Against a Pernicious Electoral Practice

Source: AP
Source: AP

The news: While gerrymandering remains a constitutional, if noxious, practice dating back to the Founding Fathers, not even America's flexible boundaries can accommodate political exclusion based on race.

On Tuesday, a three-judge district court in Virginia voted to throw out the state's current map of congressional districts. While the 2012 map, signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, received a green light from the U.S Justice Department, the district court found that "individuals in the Third Congressional District whose constitutional rights have been injured by improper racial gerrymandering have suffered significant harm."

"The redistricting plan cannot survive the strict scrutiny required of race-conscious districting because it is not narrowly tailored," wrote Judge Allyson Duncan.

Why is this happening? Despite the fact that 1 in 5 Virginia residents is black, the 3rd District remains the only one out of Virginia's 11 that has a black majority. And the 2012 map added 44,711 black voters into the 3rd District, creating this unholy shape (the 3rd District is the blue one in the southeast corner):

Source: Wikipedia

Although the state Republicans only won 51% of the total votes in the 2012 election, they ended up taking eight of the 11 districts. And while these state representatives' margins of victory were in the mid-fifties, the three Democratic representatives received 61% of the votes or more. Taken together, it's a sign of gerrymandering.

And there's one important factor to consider here. While it might be easy to describe this controversy as a political one, the racial component cannot be dismissed. The fact remains that under the current map, large swaths of black communities are being forced to vote as one district, thereby precluding them from influencing politics in others. According to the original complaint, the black voting-age population in the 3rd District increased from 53.1% to 56.3% under the new map, diluting its political influence.

"Race was a predominant consideration in the creation of the Congressional District 3. No other factor explains the tortured shape of this district, its failure to comply with traditional districting principles, or the high concentration of African-American voters in the district," alleged the complaint.

If this decision is not overturned in appeal, the state Legislature must come up with a new district map by 2016. Hopefully by then, Virginia's landscape will look less nonsensical — and less ugly.

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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