COLUMN ONE : Minority Quotas in Elections? : Redrawing districts to favor the selection of blacks, Latinos and others has touched off a fresh debate over racial entitlements. Political alignments are scrambled.


In state capitols around the nation, political activists and legislators armed with maps, computers and block-by-block bytes of census data are opening a new front in the furious national debate over affirmative action, quotas and reverse discrimination.

At issue is the arcane decennial process of revising district lines for Congress and state legislatures. This year an explosive new element has been introduced into the two parties’ traditional bare-knuckled competition over redistricting: legal mandates that require unprecedented efforts to create districts that favor the election of blacks, Latinos and other minorities.

When all the new maps are completed sometime next year, Congress could see a dramatic surge in minority members. The number of black members of the House of Representatives could rise by almost one-third from the current 25; Latino representation, now at 10, could jump by five or more, depending on the results of redistricting in California. Minorities are likely to pick up dozens of new seats in state legislatures.


To some critics, the new requirements to maximize minority representation--imposed by 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act--raise the same dispute now dividing the President and Democrats in Congress over the civil rights employment bill: When does protection against discrimination become a quota system that awards benefits through a racial entitlement?

“It is the same thing in both cases,” says Linda Chavez, staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Ronald Reagan Administration. “It reflects the notion that we are now becoming a society in which race and ethnicity decides who gets jobs, who gets promoted, who votes where.”

Civil rights activists dispute that conclusion, insisting that the new legal standards do not guarantee the election of minorities to Congress, but only permit minority communities to select their own representatives, black, Latino, Asian or white.

“The Voting Rights Act merely guarantees minorities the opportunity to participate,” says Dayna Cunningham, a voting rights attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. “There is nothing that says the candidate of choice of the minority community must be a minority.”

Generally, though, civil rights groups see the act as perhaps the principal means now available to increase minority representation at all levels of government. In Los Angeles, for example, lawsuits filed under the act forced a redistricting that facilitated the historic election of a Latina, Gloria Molina, to the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Though the philosophical lines in this debate parallel the dispute over the civil rights bill, the political alignments are scrambled by an ironic byproduct: In some instances, creating new minority districts can help elect more Republicans.


That’s because white Democrats who now rely on minority support for election can be forced to run in more conservative suburban areas when blacks and Latinos are concentrated into new districts. Creating one new minority district likely to elect a Democrat can, in theory at least, leave two or more other Democratic representatives vulnerable.

As a result, the Republican National Committee has vigorously allied itself with minorities seeking to win the maximum number of new seats in Congress and state legislatures--to the consternation of conservatives like Chavez and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who accuse the RNC of embracing quotas like those President Bush has denounced in employment.

At the same time, liberal Democrats who have lashed Bush for his record on civil rights, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of urging minorities to accept smaller gains in representation than the Republicans are offering in many states.

Battle for High Stakes

This swirling and emotional battle has high stakes for both parties. For Democrats the nationwide redistricting stands as a major test of their ability to manage a multiracial coalition already fraying over issues such as affirmative action.

For Republicans--who control far fewer of the state legislatures drawing the new maps than the Democrats--the demand for more minority seats represents “the only legal strategy the party really has to gain greater representation” in Congress, says one GOP operative.

In fact, some argue, the GOP may see political gains in the push for more minority seats even if it does not directly increase Republican representation. For one, it allows Republicans to build alliances with civil rights leaders. And it will hasten the realignment of whites into the Republican Party, some GOP operatives believe.

The rules governing this duel were set in 1982, when Congress extended the Voting Rights Act with an important amendment. Originally approved in 1965 to root out discriminatory policies, such as literacy tests, that suppressed black registration in the South, the act has often been called the most influential civil rights law ever passed.

Increasingly through the 1970s, civil rights advocates used the act to attack not only policies that inhibited minority registration, but also those they claimed constrained minority representation, including redistricting plans that denied minorities the opportunity to elect their own representatives by fragmenting their population into several districts.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that civil rights groups challenging electoral procedures, such as the drawing of district lines, must prove they were adopted with the specific intent to discriminate. But two years later, civil rights advocates convinced Congress to overturn that decision--over the objections of President Reagan and many Senate Republicans--and instead bar electoral rules that had the effect of discriminating against minorities.

Interpreting that amendment in 1986, a divided Supreme Court imposed on states with a history of racially polarized voting a virtual obligation to draw minority districts wherever possible. That standard is the dramatic new factor shaping redistricting around the country this year.

“The new rule is that in jurisdictions that are racially polarized, where you can draw a minority district, you must,” says voting rights lawyer Laughlin McDonald, Southern regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Other experts--including John R. Dunne, the assistant attorney general for civil rights--believe the states have somewhat more flexibility. But not much: The Justice Department has already set an extremely high standard for minority representation as it reviews the redistricting maps from states that are required to receive department approval for their plans.

(The act requires Justice Department “preclearance” of electoral laws in nine, mostly Southern, states and selected counties in seven other states, including California, New York and North Carolina.)

Some Plans Rejected

In a series of decisions this summer on the first maps presented to it, the department has already rejected redistricting plans for the state legislatures in Mississippi, Virginia and Louisiana, and a New York City Council plan, for failing to create enough seats in which minorities constitute a majority of the population.

“The Department of Justice has taken a much harder line with redistricting than it ever did before,” says political scientist Abigail M. Thernstrom, author of a Twentieth Century Fund study on voting rights.

With most states just now beginning to draw their lines, that signal--reinforced by the prospect of private litigation from civil rights groups under the act--is likely to result in new congressional seats that will favor the election of a black representative in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Florida and Virginia, as well as new seats favoring Latinos in Illinois, Texas and California. Latinos could also gain a new seat in New York.

For Democrats, the legislative maneuvering in these states has been an excruciating, but so far effective, exercise in balancing partisan and racial interests.

Generally, the Democratic strategy has been to work for more minority representation, but not all the new seats civil rights advocates want. The goal is to meet the voting rights act standards and still leave their incumbents enough solidly Democratic black and Latino voters to ensure reelection.

In California, for example, congressional Democrats are quietly cautioning Latinos--who now hold only three of the state’s 45 congressional seats despite constituting a quarter of the population--not to expect dramatic increases in representation. Though Democrats acknowledge the law compels them to create several new majority Latino districts, they seem to be formulating plans to largely draw those lines around incumbents such as Howard L. Berman and Don Edwards--effectively forcing Latinos to wait until those representatives retire to win the seats.

Likewise, in North Carolina, Democrats in the state Legislature approved a congressional redistricting that created one new majority black district, while Republicans and some civil rights groups contended that two could have been drawn. In Texas, legislative Democrats approved a historic plan to add two new Latino and one new black congressional seat--but rejected a GOP proposal to create a fourth new minority seat that would have endangered two white Democratic incumbents.

National Republicans cite these examples to buttress their allegation that Democrats, despite rhetorical support for minority interests, are more concerned with self-preservation.

“The Democrats are trying to do whatever they have to do to leave their white incumbents in power and they are willing to shave on the Voting Rights Act to do it,” charges Benjamin L. Ginsberg, chief counsel at the RNC.

But Republicans have had only mixed success at making that case to black Democratic state legislators. In most states, the majority of black legislators are allying with their Democratic colleagues to draw plans that increase--though not maximize--opportunities for minorities while limiting them for the GOP.

By contrast, civil rights groups are aggressively pressing the case for the maximum number of minority seats to the Justice Department and the courts, regardless of the consequences for Democrats.

Familiar Issues

To many observers, this struggle raises the same basic philosophical issues now evident in other racially tinged debates--from affirmative action in employment to multiculturalism in college curricula.

“What you are getting--regrettably, I think--is a rather myopic view that you must have the same number of seats held by minorities as is represented by their share of the population,” says attorney William Bradford Reynolds, who headed the civil rights division in the Reagan Administration.

Is the Justice Department imposing quotas in elections while opposing them in employment? Assistant Atty. Gen. Dunne insists the department is not setting rigid numerical standards for the creation of minority districts; in the Virginia case, for example, Dunne did not require the state to draw all the majority black state legislative seats that civil rights advocates proposed.

And the fact remains that even under the maps now being drawn, blacks and Latinos will still hold fewer legislative and congressional seats in most states than their share of the population. It may be difficult to argue that blacks are receiving unfair advantage when this redistricting will produce their first congressional seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia--states where they constitute between one-fifth and almost one-third of the population.

But, to other critics, the real issue is not the precise amount of representation but the trend--and the assumptions that underlie it. In some of the plans, the creation of new minority seats has required the drawing of extremely convoluted districts.

To political scientist Thernstrom, those contortions operate on the implicit belief that only minorities should represent minorities--a notion that she denounces as reflecting the divisive assumption that “this is a deeply divided society of separate nations.”

Other observers view the current drive by blacks and Latinos less ominously, noting that demands for greater political voice have accompanied the rise of every ethnic group in American society.

“There has always been a certain amount of pressure from ethnic groups to ensure that lines be drawn in a way that gives them representation,” says Seymour Martin Lipset, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

That may be--but many involved are unsure whether these stark fights for power between blacks, whites and Latinos are producing more tangible political influence for minorities, or just more racial polarization.

“I’m torn about it,” says one white Democratic congressman who represents a largely minority constituency. “I do not believe you have to be of the exact same ethnic group to do a good job in representing that community. But, in the end, I think it’s that community’s choice.”

More Minorities in Congress

As the states prepare to redraw congressional districts based on the 1990 census, they are following a 1986 Supreme Court interpretation of the Voting Rights Act which virtually requires states with a history of racial polarization to create minority districts wherever possible. The result is likely to be more minorities than ever before in Congress, and a renewed debate over whether separating minorities into their own districts will aid race relations or harm them.

States likely to gain a black representative

States likely to gain one or more Latino representatives

States with combination of above categories