Response to Wall Street Journal Voting Rights Act Editorial

by Josh Loh // Published June 20, 2006
First in a series of guest blog posts by FairVote interns

In a scathing editorial today, the Wall Street Journal seethed with righteous indignation at racial polarization created and perpetuated, in the Journal"s opinion, by the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The editorial charged the VRA with justifying "old-fashioned race-baiting." An authority quoted in the editorial criticized the VRA as

"¦ much like every other affirmative action policy "¦ a racial set-aside. The law is being used to justify actual racial proportionality.

To be sure, the octopoid districts that result from gerrymandering, racial or otherwise, are ugly artifacts of the American political landscape.

However, the editorial wrongly confuses cause with effect when it equates the goals of the VRA with the wrongs caused by the gerrymandered results. Leaving aside the question of whether minority voters have achieved equal political enfranchisement in the United States, it should be noted that the concerns of the VRA sweep more broadly than simply requiring the election of minority Congressmen. Attempting to give voice to the political concerns of minority interests, racial or otherwise, is not a concept foreign to the institutions of American democracy. Nor should such attempts be automatically equated with racial quotas and racial proportionality.

Rather, voting systems exist that can simultaneously ensure effective representation of minority political concerns while curing the negative impact of gerrymandered, single member districts. Whereas winner-take-all elections award 100% of power to a 50.1% majority, proportional representational systems have been used successfully by municipalities, state legislatures, and countries around the world to give voice to the interests of political minorities. Indeed, when presented with the available options, nascent democracies that the United States is assisting such as Iraq and Afghanistan have chosen to institute systems of proportional voting.

Replacing gerrymandered single member districts with proportional voting would ensure that minorities, racial or otherwise, have the opportunity to elect an effective representative of their interests to office. In addition, proportional voting would remove the incentive to create the gerrymandered districts that are the editorial"s chief substantive complaint by simply doing away with the single member district. No less an authority than United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has recognized that the VRA does not require single member districts. In the seminal case of Holder v. Hall, Justice Thomas noted that

[T]here is no principle inherent in our constitutional system, or even in the history of the Nation's electoral practices, that makes single member districts the "proper" mechanism for electing representatives to governmental bodies or for giving "undiluted" effect to the votes of a numerical minority. On the contrary, from the earliest days of the Republic, multimember districts were a common feature of our political systems.

By replacing single member districts and winner-take-all elections with multimember districts and proportional representation, the incentive to gerrymander mutant districts to build an artificial racial majority will fade into our political history-and with it the racial politics of polarization the editorial rightly criticizes. Josh Loh is a FairVote legal intern. He hopes to find employment in the field of election law or Faberge egg-crafting after August 2006--since the fields have roughly the same number of job opportunities.