Thursday, September 07, 2006

Voting Rights Act: Don't bother.

(Note: I recognize this is an outdated issue. I had to write it as an assignment, so I figured I'd post it on here since it's politically-related.)

There are two ways to get between the heavily Mexican west side of Chicago and the northern Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Most maps recommend taking the Kennedy Expressway. The Illinois state legislature, however, recommends going west about eighteen miles to Interstate 294, turning right, and turning right again about seven miles later for another eighteen-mile drive east. These are the approximate dimensions of Luis Gutiérrez's Fourth Congressional District, a shape that has been compared to a pair of earmuffs or the bread of a sandwich, the meat of which consists of Chicago's more African-American neighborhoods and is in a different district, the Seventh.

Illinois's Fourth District may be one of the most egregious examples of racial gerrymandering in the country, but with the aid of computers and the Voting Rights Act, which requires majority-minority districts, it is far from alone. Some gerrymandering is done to create “safe” seats, like Texas's Twenty-Second district, until recently held by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which looks like a desiccated thyroid gland. This practice is outlawed in many states, but it is difficult to enforce prohibitions on gerrymandering when federal law requires it and society expects it. The DeLay-instigated 2003 redistricting of Texas was supported by minority groups because another “black district” was offered for their support, leading to a split in the already mangled Democratic opposition.
This part of the Voting Rights Act must be changed, because the current extent of gerrymandering is a disaster for representative government. The remainder is less obviously noxious, but this part clearly does more harm than good.

The most suspicious part of the rest of the Voting Rights Act is the requirement of Justice Department approval for changes to voting laws in certain areas of the country. Not only does this give certain states and counties special privileges (or the negative form of that, which amounts to the same thing), but the Supreme Court, not the extraconstitutional Justice Department, is supposed to decide on the legitimacy of laws. This ends up being what happens anyways, as in recent years, only an insignificant number of changes in voting laws have been declared impermissible in the Justice Department's preclearance process. Some of those laws that were “precleared” by the Justice Department were then invalidated in the federal court system.

Section Two of the Voting Rights Act is the least suspicious and the most geared towards the problems which the Act was supposed to solve: it simply prohibits any voting discrimination whatsoever, to be enforced and interpreted by federal court rulings. Section Two is also permanent, meaning that any debate over its renewal, as opposed to its repeal, is moot.

With the permanence of Section Two in mind, the usefulness of the sections requiring renewal is questionable. Minority-majority districts, as seen in Illinois's Fourth Congressional District and in only slightly less ridiculous examples throughout the country, hurt the concept of representative government and helps in the societal condonement of non-racial gerrymandering, further hurting the representation of Americans in their state capitals and in Washington, DC.

Justice Department preclearance is also a pointless bureaucratic process, especially as essentially everything that comes before the preclearance division seems to get cleared by them, with the courts making the final decisions in cases where their assistance would have been called on anyways under Section Two. Thus it should be repealed not because it has any particularly negative effects, but because it adds another meaningless layer of government to a government already swimming in red tape.

Thus, the parts of the Voting Rights Act that come up for renewal should not be renewed, because their effects range from deleterious to annoying. Section Two, which is permanent, accomplishes the goals of the entire act with negligible harm done. The renewal of the Voting Rights Act is thus a political game by Democrats who want to keep the “black vote” and Republicans afraid of being called racist, rather than a decision which Congress believes is in the best interest of the American people.


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