Does gerrymandering for racial purposes lead to apathy and low African-American voter turnout?
A few days ago I wrote about the attempts by the Justice Department to force the city of Kinston, North Carolina to label candidates by party affiliation. The Justice Department adopted a paternalistic (and insulting) rationale when they justified their action as being necessary to insure that African-Americans can elect candidates of their choice - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and are almost exclusively African-American.
The department ruled that white voters will only vote for African-Americans if they are Democrats and that the city cannot eliminate party affiliations on the ballot because that would violate African-American voters' right to elect candidates (presumably African-American) that they want. (my colleague, Clarice Feldman, also has an article on the controversy).
The facts are: African-Americans are a majority of registered voters in the heavily Democratic community but low voter turnout often makes them a minority of actual voters on election day. Hence, the need to put a thumb on the scale of justice to help African-American and Democrat candidates to win.
But low voter turnout is not set in stone. After all, African-Americans turned out in droves in Kinston to elect Barack Obama. But, generally, apathy is the rule when it comes to turnout among African-Americans. Why?
Abigail Thernstrom suggests an answer: gerrymandering to ensure African-American majority districts leads to apathy and low voter turnout. She writes in NRO's The Corner:
Vanderbilt University law professor Carol Swain found that turnout in black-majority congressional districts across the country was especially low. She noted, for example, that just 13 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls in 1986 in Major Owens's 78-percent black district in New York City. If voters in Owens's district felt more empowered with a black man representing them in Washington, it certainly did not inspire many of them to bother to vote.
James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo, has supported Swain's findings. Campbell found that in 1994, more than 60 percent of congressional districts in which minorities were the majority ranked in the bottom quintile in levels of voter turnout. Other scholars have looked at the data and come to the same conclusion.
The low-voter-turnout point applies to both black-designer districts and black-majority cities and towns. Places like Kinston are not the creation of an overly intrusive Justice Department; nevertheless, since the DOJ used low black voter turnout as the excuse for rejecting the nonpartisan-voting proposal, it is worth noting the similarity in voting-participation patterns in majority-black towns and artificially created majority-black districts. In both settings, black political apathy should tell the Justice Department to keep out. The DOJ is acting aggressively to remedy an alleged wrong that has nothing to do with discrimination.
Justice Department intrusiveness in drawing electoral districts creates a dynamic that devalues an individual's sense that his vote matters. Each voter in majority black and majority Democratic districts feels that the election result is pre-ordained so why bother to participate in the most important action in a democracy?
By the way, the same principle is true in majority-white and Republican districts. The end result is voters lose interest and feel as if they do not matter. This is unfortunate from a civic point of view.
But there are worse consequences. Artificially drawn district maps often lead to candidates who adopt extreme views instead of moderating them to appeal to more broadly distributed electorates. Congressmen elected in African-American districts become advocates for what they feel are African-American concerns. Whites in Republican districts do the same. This is wrong. We might have less partisan bickering and extremism if districts were drawn in a less racial way so we can get Congressmen that reflect the views of all Americans.