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Ruling may benefit Democrats

Published Oct. 4, 2005

The Supreme Court's decision to limit race-based voting districts might turn out to be good news for the Democratic Party and could energize black voters.

Although civil rights groups reacted with horror to the decision Thursday, by Friday they had decided to turn it to their advantage. The NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups vowed to add 7-million black voters to the rolls to boost their political influence.

The ruling could be good news for the Democratic Party because blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. If blacks once again were scattered throughout the voting districts, rather than being packed into minority districts designed to elect black officials, they could tip the balance in those districts back to the Democratic Party.

Rep. Alzo Reddick, D-Orlando, is black but he's not a fan of minority districts. He said he is convinced they contributed to the Republican takeover in Congress last year.

"Redistricting had the effect of whitening up all of the white districts while blackening and Democratizing all of the black districts," Reddick said.

It works this way: If district lines are drawn to create black districts, the remaining districts may be 98 percent white. The black districts will usually elect Democrats; the white districts have favored Republicans. It's no accident that Republicans have strongly supported minority districts.

If district lines are drawn without considering race, however, districts may end up being 10 percent or 15 percent black. That's more than enough to swing an election.

Even if Democrats don't recapture seats, Reddick said, the campaigns might be more competitive, and minorities' concerns would have to be taken into account. Ideally, blacks and whites would learn how much they have in common, such as the need for good jobs and schools, he said.

Most civil rights groups have argued in favor of minority districts as the only way to get blacks elected. A record 40 blacks are serving in Congress.

For the past several years, Southern states have created as many minority districts as they could, a process called maximization. The Justice Department required such districts for states to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which was originally passed to prevent discrimination against minorities at the polls.

Such districts are not required, the Supreme Court said Friday. Race should not be the predominant factor in drawing district lines.

"Just as the state may not, absent extraordinary justification, segregate citizens on the basis of race in its public parks, buses, golf courses, beaches and schools . . . it may not separate its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

But he was careful to say that discrimination still exists and sometimes must be remedied.

The court did not strike down race-based districts altogether, said Richard Scher, a voting-rights expert at the University of Florida. It was saying, "Yeah, you can continue to use race. You just have to be very, very, very, very careful as to how you use race," he said.

The court offered no guidelines about what it will accept, which leaves legislatures in the lurch. When they draw lines for their state's legislative and congressional districts, as they normally do every 10 years, they will have to navigate between the new court ruling, which says race cannot be a predominant factor, and the Voting Rights Act, which says minority voting strength musn't be diluted.

"It will make it much more politicized and much more divisive than it was the last time around," said Susan McManus, a voting-rights expert at the University of South Florida.

The Legislature's redistricting efforts in 1992 were tumultuous and painful. The map it designed already has been challenged and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. But two oddly shaped minority districts are being challenged separately. One is the congressional district held by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. The other is the legislative district in the Tampa Bay area held by state Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa.

House Speaker Peter Wallace, a St. Petersburg Democrat, says he doubts the districts could stand up to legal scrutiny in light of the new ruling. He is talking about redrawing the congressional map this year.

But even if Wallace can get the Legislature to go along with him, McManus says redrawing the Florida districts probably won't change voting patterns enough to give Democrats an edge, as it might in other states.

In fact, she said, the Democratic Party nationally will have to work hard to keep disillusioned black voters in the fold. Although the change in voting districts will likely stimulate black turnout in 1996, she predicts their votes might go to an independent presidential bid from Jesse Jackson, not to the Democrats.