Forsaking districts' democracy for politics

April 26, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

CRACKING OR packing, which do you prefer? Only redistricting geeks need reply.

The U.S. Supreme Court once again entangled itself in this question last week. It essentially concluded that packing -- cramming minorities into a few districts -- was OK so long as it happened because of politics, not race.

But the question won't disappear as states, including Maryland, redraw political boundaries for Congress and state legislatures this year. Maryland's General Assembly could wind up in special session in the fall to grapple with this convoluted issue.

For the uninitiated, cracking is what redistricting aficionados refer to when a large concentration of minority voters is split between two predominantly white districts. The idea usually is to dilute minority voting strength and elect two white members of Congress instead of one white and one black official.

Packing, in redistricting jargon, has the reverse effect: One black congressional candidate gets elected, but the surrounding districts become so lopsidedly white -- and usually conservative -- that the odds heavily favor white candidates.

Packing or cracking. One extreme is as bad as the other.

But if you had to choose, I'd opt for cracking.

That's not a smart political move in the short term for minorities, but in the long run the payoffs could be much greater.

Packing minorities within a district puts a lid on future minority gains. It also encourages those representing heavily white districts to ignore concerns of minorities.

The notion of America as a melting pot is destroyed by packing one group of citizens into a congressional district.

As a Supreme Court justice put it, it's our nation's version of apartheid.

It was a weird 1992 North Carolina congressional district that brought this matter before the nation's high court. And what a wacko district it was.

Democrats in the North Carolina legislature tried to create a majority-black district by snaking boundary lines along an interstate highway.

The result: Clusters of blacks living in Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte were all tossed into a single district connected only by Interstate 85.

It was as if Maryland had carved out a new minority district tying Cherry Hill in the city to black precincts in Prince George's County -- with the Baltimore-Washington Parkway serving as the narrow, connecting link.

The 1992 version of this North Carolina district was too much for the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor rightly warned that such gerrymandering threatened to "Balkanize" America.

But a redrawn, heavily black North Carolina district, still snake-like in appearance, was approved last week by the court -- with Justice O'Connor as the pivotal vote.

Yet the threat of Balkanization she warned about remains.

Sadly, it's not the only contorted congressional district. There are two in Florida that are doozies.

Florida's narrow, ragged 22nd District -- the Gold Coast -- runs 91 miles from Palm Beach to Miami Beach along the ocean. It's 94 percent white.

All the minority neighborhoods, though, were razored out. They're part of the 23rd District, which is tied via a thin strip to a rural area inland that includes migrant-worker camps. The result: a 62 percent minority district.

The danger here is that we're creating de facto segregation in which each political party sees it in its best interest to separate white voters from minority voters in congressional districts.

Look at the Maryland situation. Democrats in Annapolis went to great lengths to create a 67 percent minority district in Prince George's County. But in doing so, all the surrounding districts became lily-white.

Or look at the Baltimore region. Rep. Ben Cardin used his considerable pull in the legislature to gain nearly all the white, Democratic precincts. His district, shaped like a reverse C, is 80 percent white.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings' district contains all of the black precincts inside Mr. Cardin's reverse-C district. It is 71 percent black.

In the short run, such packing of voters has helped minority representation rise in Congress. But there's slim hope of gaining more minority congressmen in Maryland because the remaining districts are so overwhelmingly white.

Packing becomes a glass ceiling. It eliminates melting-pot districts. It stops minority advancement. It encourages the kind of extreme partisanship we see in Congress.

And, sadly, as we begin a new round of congressional redistricting, it has now been sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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