Unintended Consequences of the Voting Rights Act


September 13, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

What has Congress wrought? Has the Congress so bollixe up redistricting that the law now distorts the cause of true reapportionment based on population shifts?

Maryland's predicament is typical. Because of the Voting Rights Act, state officials had to eviscerate a number of counties, rip communities out of their traditional districts and create districts based on race.

Moreover, the new districts so disregard historic boundaries that the newly elected congressmen could have trouble figuring out who they are supposed to represent.

How in the world can either Wayne Gilchrest or Tom McMillen take a coherent position on hot environmental issues like wetlands laws when the new 1st District takes in both the rural, conservative farming area of the Eastern Shore as well as liberal, suburban Anne Arundel County and a swath of blue-collar, urban Baltimore City?

How can Tom Hattery or Roscoe Bartlett represent the staunch conservatives of Western Maryland and the liberal townhouse residents of Howard County in the 6th?

And how can Steny Hoyer or Larry Hogan Jr. give a coherent voice to a 5th District that takes in conservative, rural Southern Maryland plus a big chunk of urban-oriented Prince George's County and western and southern Anne Arundel?

A split personality dominates most districts in this post-Voting Rights Act period. It dilutes the ability of a congressman to give strong voice to a single political subdivision. For instance, Rep. Kweisi Mfume was constrained from taking sides in the dispute over locating the Health Care Financing Administration headquarters because 20 percent of his constituents live in Baltimore County, enough to give him pause about endorsing a city site.

Likewise, Rep. Ben Cardin, also viewed as a "city congressman," was neutralized in the HCFA fight because 58 percent of his district lies outside the city.

Only Rep. Helen Bentley, a throwback to an earlier era, entered the HCFA dispute -- though the two sites aren't in her district. Unlike Mr. Cardin or Mr. Mfume whose allegiances are torn in different directions within their new districts, Mrs. Bentley clearly sees herself as representing a single subdivision -- even if 46 percent of Baltimore County lies outside her district.

Tenacious loyalty to a county or the city used to be the rule throughout Maryland. The city, for instance, had their own congressmen, who went to bat for Baltimore. Sam Friedel, George Fallon and Eddie Garmatz saw after the city's needs, and Clarence Long attended to the needs of Baltimore and Harford counties. The same kinds of sensible political divisions of power held sway in the rest of the state, too.

But the Voting Rights Act has dramatically changed all that, and not necessarily for the better. In an effort to give blacks fairer representation, Congress went too far, mandating the creation of segregated districts -- and in the process distorting other districts far beyond reasonable limits. Thus, Mr. Mfume's new 7th District -- which sprawls all the way to the Carroll County line to capture every conceivable black vote in western Baltimore County -- is 71 percent black, and the new 4th District in the Washington suburbs is 59 percent black with a heavy smattering of Hispanics in the Montgomery County portion, too.

By forcing urban and suburban blacks into just two districts, the Voting Rights Act had the unwanted secondary effect of creating "lily-white" districts that stretch far beyond natural political dividing lines. Mrs. Bentley's 2nd District is 94 percent white; the 6th District of Western Maryland, Carroll and Howard counties is 95 percent white; the 8th District of Montgomery County is 91 percent white. The state's one truly integrated district, Mr. Hoyer's 5th, was denied black voters and converted into a white, conservative bastion.

The cause of integration was dealt a setback. A quarter-century ago, Maryland had four well-integrated districts, each with minority representation of over 25 percent. Today, there are only two districts with heavy minority numbers. That's progress?

Yes, there will be one more black congressman from Maryland. But there is far less pressure for the state's six white congressmen to align themselves with minority causes. After all, their heavily white constituencies often have sharply different priorities.

How this will work in the next Congress is anyone's guess. Will an enlarged Black Caucus demand largess based strictly on race? Will white congressmen with much smaller minority constituencies ignore these demands? Will votes be cast more along racial lines than demographic or geographic lines? Will Mr. Mfume vote more in tandem with the likely 4th District winner, Al Wynn, than with his city colleague, Ben Cardin?

It's too bad the old congressional boundary lines couldn't be modified slightly to accommodate population moves. Most counties and the city were happy with the lines. The districts seemed demographically compatible. And blacks had a shot at picking up as many as three seats by the end of the decade as the districts became more integrated.

Instead, a "hiring quota" has been imposed: Maryland was under a legal requirement to create two heavily black congressional districts. But this will make it virtually impossible for a black candidate to make a breakthrough in one of the other six #F districts, now that they've been drained of black voters. We seem to be building walls to integration instead of knocking them down.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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