Apportionment: African-American Representation

Since the end of Reconstruction, African-Americans have been badly underrepresented in South Carolina politics. As soon as whites regained political power, they quickly used all available tools to minimize, and then after the creation of the Constitution of 1895, to end all African-American representation in government. With the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, African-Americans regained their most fundamental political right, the right of suffrage. However, the right to vote did not translate into the election of African-Americans to office as long as white incumbents were able to create representational plans (such as at-large elections) and draw representational districts to minimize the ability of African-American voters to elect one of their own to office. Of course, had white voters been willing to vote for African-American candidates, this would not have been as great a problem. The greatest beneficiaries of this situation were white incumbent Democrats who usually benefitted from African-American votes. Once the percentage of African-American voters reached about 25% in a district, white Democrats were usually able to defeat Republican challengers. Although office-holders had to pay some attention to their African-American constituents, many African-American leaders in the state felt they were being taken for granted.

As federal court rulings forced the state to do away with at-large elections for the state house of representatives in 1974 and to draw state senate districts of equal size rather than having one senator per county, opportunities for African-American representation increased. The number of African-Americans in the house increased from three to thirteen after the 1974 election. Another ten years passed before an African-American won election to the state senate. The civil rights leader I. DeQuincey Newman was elected in a special election in 1983. Three more African-Americans were elected in 1984 (Herbert Fielding, John Matthews, and Theo Mitchell). After Newman's death in 1985, he was replaced in a special election by Kay Patterson.

The key to election was creating districts with a substantial African-American majority, or "majority-minority" districts. With each reapportionment African-American legislators pressed for more majority-minority districts, aided by pressure from the federal Justice Department and the courts, which in 1986 had interpreted amendments to the Voting Rights Act in such a way as to favor more such districts (Thornburg v. Gingles ). In the meanwhile the state was becoming more Republican and the GOP was gaining new seats in the legislature. By 1994 enough Republicans sat in the state house so that African-American legislators held the balance of power between white Democrats and the Republicans. In May of 1994 Republicans and African-American Democrats temporarily joined forces and redrew the lines to create more majority-minority districts. This benefitted Republicans by increasing the percentage of whites in surrounding districts and setting the stage for electing more Republicans.

The table below shows the impact of the last three reapportionments on the partisan balance of power. As redistricting created more low percentage African-American districts and majority-minority districts, the number of Republican seats rose in the low percentage African-American districts along with the number of African-American Democrats.

Reapportionment and Partisan Balance: % Black Population (# of Representatives)**

% Black

Population

1988 House

Election

1992 House

Election

1994 House

Election

Republican

Districts

16.5% (37) 13.9% (50)* 10.3% (63)
White Dem.

Districts

31.2% (71) 33.4% (55)* 28.8% (33)
Black Dem.

Districts

61.9% (16) 62.4% (18)* 60.2% (24)

Notes: *Total is not 124 because of districts with representatives claiming independent status.

** All information compiled from S.C. Election Commission data.

How to best draw representational lines raises a fundamental philosophical and practical issue for African-Americans--the problem of duality. The problem takes many forms: integration versus separation, inclusion versus communal obligation, and as we can see in the reapportionment battle, direct representation by blacks versus black influence over mostly white officeholders. Strong arguments can be made on both sides. Many African-American political leaders, including many members of the Legislative Black Caucus, feel that having direct representation is more important than saving white Democratic seats. Feeling that white Democrats took them for granted, they see no difference over which party is in power. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter sarcastically took issue with those who wanted to protect the seats of white Democrats. "Spare me from all the good intentions of all these people who are just so concerned about the representation of people of color. I just don't understand why we're in the shape we're in when we've had all these people looking after us all these years" (Scoppe, "S.C. House," A6).

Having districts where African-Americans can be elected clearly stimulates political participation. Looking at county level data and registration rates, the highest African American registration rates are in those counties with a high percentage of African -American population. All of the eleven counties with black majorities in their voting age population are among the fifteen counties with a black registration rate of over fifty percent of the potentially eligible population.

The South Carolina tradition of county legislative delegation rule has increased African-American power in local matters. Under the county delegation system, all legislators who have part of their district in a county sit together and have a great deal of control over local governmental decisions in that county. Creating majority African-American districts has created many districts that cross county lines. This allows their African-American representatives to sit on relatively more county delegations than white legislators.

On the other side of the question are not only self-interested Democrats, but also some African-Americans. They feel that "affirmative racial gerrymandering," as it is sometimes called, creates more division within the state and may not be in the best long-term self-interest of the African-American community. Drawing districts--whether they be school districts, city or county council districts, legislative districts, or U.S. House districts--with a first priority of maximizing the number of majority-minority districts resegregates communities, causes representatives to see issues mainly in terms of black and white, divides communities into multiple districts so that they lose a clear single voice devoted to them, and has a general negative impact on race relations. They argue that creating majority African American districts tends to pack districts with African-American voters so that representatives from neighboring nearly all-white districts pay little attention to the needs of blacks. Ironically, the historical parallel for this goes back to 1882 when white Democrats packed a fourth of the African-Americans in the state into a single congressional district, the seventh district, known then as the "black district." The idea was to minimize the political impact of those blacks who were still voting in the six other districts so that whites could be elected. The practice continued until the 1890s. Critics ask whether this practice will have the same effect today.

After carefully weighing the many arguments concerning these issues, law professor James Underwood concludes that successful governance requires "the building of a consensus if anything is to be accomplished beyond the temporary victory of one group over another." This is best accomplished by a system "in which each legislator represents approximately equal numbers of people, without regard to the racial, ethnic, economic, or other characteristics" so that the system "does not tend to preordain election results or freeze into constitutional form certain issues as forever being the important ones."

A comprehensive study of voting records in the U.S. Congress published in the December 1996 American Political Science Review was performed to try and measure the trade-off between having black representatives and black influence. The study found that a trade-off did indeed exist. Concentrating black voters in districts to elect black representatives diluted support among other representatives for bills favored by blacks. Spreading black voters across more districts resulted in the election of representatives who were more sensitive to black interests. The study also found an interesting regional effect that may be relevant to South Carolina legislative districts. In the North the optimal strategy for maximizing representational influence was to spread black voters evenly across districts. In the South the best strategy was to concentrate blacks in districts at 47%. At this percentage blacks did have an "equal opportunity" to be elected, and even when not elected did help elect a representative who was likely to support minority interests in Congress. One must be careful in applying a finding at the congressional level to a single state at the legislative level. However, the findings suggest that as a matter of self-interest in getting bills passed, black voters are concentrated at too high a level in the state's legislative districts.

In recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has begun to move away from affirmative racial gerrymandering. It questioned bizzare looking districts drawn to help elect minorities (Shaw v. Reno, 1993). In the summer of 1995 the court ruled in Miller v. Johnson that race could not be the predominant factor in creating election districts at any level. This ruling has stimulated two separate legal challenges to the house and senate districts for the state legislature. In the fall of 1996 the federal courts ruled that three senate districts and six house districts had been drawn with only race in mind. It required the legislature to redraw these districts by April 1, 1997. In late January 1997 the House and Senate passed new plans that affect district lines for seven senate seats and twenty-two house seats. New lines were carefully drawn to maximize the chances of incumbents winning re-election. Until whites become more willing to vote for African-American candidates, these lines will place an upper limit of eight and twenty-six African-Americans in the House and Senate respectively. As of this writing, the plan awaits approval from the courts after the House and Senate agree on the primary date. If approved, primaries will take place in the summer of 1997 and the elections for all affected seats will take place in November.

Robert E. Botsch, Professor of Political Science, USC Aiken, bobb@aiken.sc.edu

Sources:

Bass, Jack, and Walter DeVries. The Transformation of Southern Politics. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Botsch, Carol, and Robert. "African Americans and South Carolina Politics." The Journal of Political Science (Fall 1996).

Cameron, Charles, David Epstein, and Sharyn O'Halleran. "Do Majority-Minority Districts Maximize Substantive Black Representation in Congress." The American Political Science Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (December 1996), 794-812.

Pope, Charles. "South Carolina Stands Alone in Remap Dispute." The State (May 23, 1994), B1.

Rone, William E. "'Black District' Drawn A Century Ago Aided Democrats." The State (May 15, 1991), A12.

Scoppe, Cindi Ross, "Justice Oks Elections for House." The State (June 1, 1994), A1.

Scoppe, Cindi Ross, "Senate Maps Out Incumbent Havens." The State (January 31, 1997), B1.

Scoppe, Cindi Ross. "S.C. House Districts Challenged." The State (January 3, 1996) , A1, A6.

Stucker, Jan Collins. "Did You Know I.D. Newman Kept You Safe During Desegregation?" The State Magazine (March 25, 1984), pp.8-11.

Underwood, James. The Constitution of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: The University of South Carolina Press, 1986-1994.

"USC Fills First Endowed Chair," The State (February 18, 1994).

last updated: 3/27/97

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