Redistricting is a partisan activity. Democrats want to elect more Democrats, and Republicans want to elect more Republicans. Incumbents want to be re-elected, and good government advocates often want more competitive elections. But much of the public debate surrounding redistricting focuses not on partisanship, but on race. Why is this?
The main reason so much of redistricting battle centers around race is that a federal law regulates how New Jersey can draw its legislative and congressional districts. That law is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the VRA for short. The VRA includes many sections and provisions, but the part that is relevant to New Jersey’s redistricting fight is Section 2. Section 2 prohibits discriminatory voting practices, including vote dilution. The leading Supreme Court case on Section 2, Thornburg v. Gingles, set out a three-part test to determine whether the method (usually a legislative district map of some kind) used by a state, county, or local government in electing representatives to a governing body dilutes minority votes:
1. Is the minority group sufficiently large such that a geographically compact, single-member minority-majority district is possible?
2. Is the minority group politically cohesive?
3. Does racial bloc voting by the white majority enable it to defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate?
If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then the vote dilution claim succeeds and the method or map in question is illegal. If the answer to one of these questions is no, the vote dilution claim fails and the method or map in question is legal.
Below the fold, I explore further the Gingles vote dilution standard and attempt to explain the impact Section 2 might have on redistricting at the state, county, and even local level in New Jersey. I make no normative arguments in this diary because I believe that, to understand the debate surrounding redistricting, it is important to understand the law governing it. The threat of litigation under the VRA affects line-drawing strategies of both Democrats and Republicans in redistricting. Politicians, leaders of minority groups, pundits, tea partiers, and other interested parties also deploy the VRA as a rhetorical weapon in the battle over redistricting. In doing so, some may overstate or understate its power to serve their own political goals. But who actually has a bullet in the chamber, and who is merely making empty legal assertions? Follow me below the fold to find out.