Last Thursday, Pramila Jayapal and George Cheung of United for Fair Representation wrote an op-ed column in the Seattle Times. Though it ended up on the doorsteps of a couple hundred thousand readers, their opinion piece was actually addressed to an audience of four — the members of the Washington State Redistricting Commission.
Jayapal and Cheung are challenging the Commissioners to create a “majority-minority” Congressional District at their next public meeting, tomorrow morning in Olympia. They’ll probably get their wish … which, sad to say, might eventually work against their interests.
Before explaining what I mean, we need some background information. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contains several provisions that bar racial discrimination in redistricting plans. Sixteen states are required to go through “preclearance” of their plans, automatic submission to their plans to the feds; Washington is not one of those states. In practice, application of the VRA has resulted in district lines that collect members of a racial group into one district, thereby greatly increasing the probability that that CD will be represented by a member of that group. One might call it “reverse gerrymandering”, concentrating a group instead of diluting their influence by drawing districts that put small pockets of the group into several districts dominated by other ethnicities. In creating such Congressional Districts, you can end up with some really ludicrous maps. For instance, look at Illinois’s 4th District, in which the two convoluted sections of Chicago’s Latino communities are connected by the median strip of I-294.
Another majority-minority district is the 12th District of North Carolina, which crawls along I-85 picking up African-American communities while skipping past other towns. It even looks a little bit like the original 1812 gerrymander.
Those two CDs, and others around the country, achieved the goal of fostering diversity in the House of Representatives. Luis Gutiérrez represents IL-04 in Washington and the Congressman from NC-12 is African-American Mel Watt. But I doubt that the same could easily happen if our Redistricting Commission takes the advice of Jayapal and Cheung, because any such district would be majority-minorities. Unlike the largely Mexican-American IL-04 or the mostly black NC-12, a Washington district would be Eritrean and Pakistani, Thai and Guatemalan, Indian and American Indian, Vietnamese and African-American, Iraqi and Filipino … on and on and on. No race, no language group, no national origin would predominate. Some of those groups are antagonistic to others — would a Bengali vote for a Pakistani? a Honduran for a Salvadoran? an Iraqi for an Iranian? With such splintering, in a multi-candidate electoral race, it just might turn out that someone from the largest single demographic group in the CD (non-Hispanic whites) would win.
This is not to suggest that racial identity would be the reason for any citizen to vote for a particular candidate. I’m merely saying that the situation wouldn’t be nearly as cut-and-dried as it would be in a locale with a large concentration of a single racial/ethnic group.
There’s another issue as well. Republicans love majority-minority Congressional Districts. Racial minorities are generally Democrats, and concentrating a racial group into, say, a 75-25 Democratic district may make it possible to generate a bunch of 53-47 Republican CDs around it. That’s probably not the case in Illinois, where the excluded middle of IL-04 is largely a black community, but it certainly applies to North Carolina. And it could happen in Washington as well.
In their op-ed, Jayapal and Cheung summarize the first round of Redistricting Commission maps (emphasis added):
Republican commissioners Slade Gorton and Tom Huff and Democratic commissioner Tim Ceis made strong and positive statements that reflected their appreciation for people’s participation in the process and their belief that there was a real need for this change. Huff’s map exactly matched our unity map. No maps had all of our asks reflected but many had some and we will continue to push for as much representation as possible for people of color.
While Tom Huff may have given United for Fair Representation what they want, he found a lot of ways to screw Democrats. His map, IMHO, is even more Republican-friendly than
Skeletor’s Gorton’s. For instance, he separates uber-Democratic San Juan County from the Whatcom County-based CD, replacing those voters with large chunks of rural Republicans in eastern King, Snohomish, and Skagit. I see that district as lean-R. Huff drew four strong-R districts on his map, and another that could swing that way when Norm Dicks decides to hang ’em up. Also, he has the Seattle-based CD wrapping around the northern border of Lake Washington, far enough to include most of Kirkland. His map certainly doesn’t come close to representing the state’s overall makeup.
Tomorrow, we’ll get to see each Commissioner’s second iteration. It will be interesting to see who has moved his boundaries the most, as well as who has hardened his position. I still have confidence that the Commission will agree on a final map by the end of the year. And I think it’ll have a majority-minorities Congressional District. But I don’t have much confidence that the m-m district will be represented by a minority group Congress(wo)man. If Tom Huff or Slade Gorton gets his way, it will be slightly more difficult to elect enough Democrats to retake control of the House from the crazies who run it these days. And a Democratic Congress would do far, far more for Jayapal and Cheung (and the rest of us) than building the Congressional District they seek.