State wastes black votes

Fairness: Redrawn districts continue to disenfranchise minorities, but shifting lines on a map won't fix the problem.

January 20, 2002|By Tom Schaller | Tom Schaller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In his complaints about the racial fairness of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed redistricting plan, Baltimore state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV is dead on. In terms of a solution, however, he is dead wrong.

It's always a struggle to draw majority African-American districts in a state where blacks are clustered, as they are in Maryland around Baltimore and in Prince George's County. But instead of looking at the lines drawn on the new redistricting map, which would pit him against South Baltimore Sen. George W. Della, Mitchell should have focused on the real reason for the dilution of the black vote.

That is the large number of districts that elect one senator and vote at large for three house members. This strengthens the Democratic hold on the legislature, by making it hard to elect Republicans, but it also makes it hard to elect African Americans.

Consider a hypothetical district with 60 registered Democrats and 39 registered Republicans. The district will probably elect a Democratic senator - arguably a fair result given the Democratic majority. If no sub-districts are drawn, all three House delegates will likely be Democrats, too.

Should not the 39 Republicans have some representation? If the district were carved into three, single-delegate districts each with 33 voters, one district would almost certainly contain a Republican majority. The electoral math does not necessarily cut both ways, however, because sub-districts are used selectively in Republican dominated areas.

District 37A on the Eastern Shore and 14A in Montgomery County are sub-districts that elect Democratic delegates within Republican-dominated senate districts. The selective use of sub-districts bolsters Democratic control in Maryland

How does the above exercise pertain to Mitchell? Most studies show that multiple-member districts tend to reduce the seat share held by racial minorities. Though the translation is imperfect, substitute "white" for Democrats, "black" for Republicans, assume that race is a key factor in voting behavior, and you can understand why Mitchell and Republican Congressman Bob Ehrlich expressed similar, "brink of irrelevancy" frustrations over the proposed redistricting lines.

There's another reason that Mitchell and fellow members of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus should collude with Republican legislators and agitate for electoral change - it might give blacks "pivotal" power in the legislature. The argument goes like this: Because uniform use of single-member districts would likely decrease Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates yet maintain, if not increase, the percentage of black state legislators, a cohesive Black Caucus would exercise greater bargaining power because it would be a larger voting bloc within a smaller Democratic caucus.

Presently, white Democrats command a majority of both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly. Were black legislators to increase their chamber shares so neither party enjoyed a voting majority without them, the Black Caucus could really flex its muscles in Annapolis - as well it should in a state with nearly 30 percent African Americans. Threats by black legislators to defect to the Republican Party would be taken quite seriously.

Mitchell's district, composed in 1990 of 75 percent African Americans, is a perfect example of a "black-packed" district that dilutes the overall voting influence of African Americans citywide and statewide.

These districts "waste" African-American voters beyond the share needed to elect a black legislator in these districts - voters who in other districts might elect other black legislators or influence whoever does win. There are so many "black-packed" state legislative districts in the country that 91 percent of black legislators in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles ran either unopposed or won landslides with more than 65 percent of the vote.

Ironically, the type of district that maximizes African-American influence is the proposed 41st district in which Mitchell would find himself. True, he may have to challenge fellow incumbent Senator Della in a 53-percent African-American district. But if more districts looked like his new one, there would be a greater chance to increase from nine the number of black senators.

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