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What now for redistricting?

Published 9:12pm Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Last week’s column on noncompetitive General Assembly elections struck a chord with readers.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a raw nerve on a related topic by ruling unconstitutional one of the key underpinnings of race-based gerrymandering, a major contributor to the problem of noncompetitive elections.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring certain states, including Virginia, to get the federal government’s blessing of all election laws before they take effect.

Liberals and civil-rights supporters blasted the decision as a setback for black Americans. Reaction from conservative elected leaders in Virginia was surprisingly muted, perhaps because the court has taken away a tool that arguably has helped Republicans in Virginia as much as it has Democrats in recent years.

Republican lawmakers have been happy to maximize the number of black-majority legislative districts because concentrating black voters in those districts makes other districts less competitive, helping ensure GOP majorities in the General Assembly. The Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” provision gave legislative mapmakers perfect cover for partisan gerrymandering disguised as race-based gerrymandering.

It will be interesting to see what effect the court’s decision has on future redistricting efforts.

The ruling should not be overstated. The court did not outlaw states’ consideration of race when drawing election boundaries. It simply said that previously affected states, mostly in the South, no longer need Justice Department approval of those boundaries and other election-related changes, including simple actions like moving a polling place from one side of the street to the other.

However, the court’s ruling does dispel the notion that lawmakers have to bend over backward to create additional black-majority districts in order to please Justice Department bureaucrats.

Whether Virginia has become completely colorblind in its administration of voting rights is debatable, but the high court correctly ruled that the sins of 50 years ago can no longer be the litmus test of a state’s racial fairness. Virginia voters’ majority support of Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections is strong anecdotal evidence that the commonwealth has evolved past systemic disenfranchisement of black voters.

Regardless of the broader implications of the court’s ruling, it appears at first glance to be a favorable development for those who believe strongly in the value of competitive legislative races. Legislators who are not hyperfocused on race when drawing election boundaries should be able to better consider geography and common interests of voters.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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