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Is Vote Dilution Necessarily Bad?


September 8, 2023

There really is no obvious way to defend the congressional district map drawn by the Alabama state legislature—and struck down by a federal court for unconstitutionally diluting the African-American vote in that state. More than 25 percent of Alabama’s population is black, yet only one of its seven members of Congress is. At the same time, the one congressional district, Alabama’s 7th, that has reliably elected an African-American is some 62 percent black. Whether the motivation of the state’s Republicans is racism or a desire to pack blacks who vote reliably Democrat into one district—or both—is a question only they can answer. But the map can certainly be understood to run afoul of the Voting Rights Act, whose Section 2 has been interpreted to guarantee the rights of minorities to participate equally in the political process. Packing the black vote into one district dilutes the vote impact of blacks in others.

It is worth asking, however, whether dilution runs inherently contrary to the interests of black voters. Might it enable them to play a role as swing voters—who must be taken seriously by all candidates, or set the stage for black candidates to be elected by building coalitions with whites?

The potential benefits of such dilution—or call it non-concentration—can be discerned through what might seem to be a remote historical example, one involving political organizing by American Jews. This is not to compare the two minority groups at all—especially in the context of overt American racism and the lack of historic access by blacks to the ballot box. It is, rather, to make a tactical point.

In the late 1940s, American Jews had come to embrace Zionism and sought ways to pressure President Truman to support recognition of the state of Israel. Jews, of course, comprised a tiny percentage of the overall American population and there were just three Jewish Americans in Congress in 1948, all from New York and only one a Democrat.

But there were small Jewish communities scattered across the country, including in the Midwest and South—and even Truman’s hometown of Independence Missouri. A brilliant Rabbi from Cleveland, Abba Hillel Silver, understood this “dilution” be a potential advantage, rather than an electoral weakness. As recounted in Israel in the Mind of America, the 1983 book by one-time New York Times reporter Peter Grose, Silver’s American Zionist Emergency Council set about mobilizing pressure “wherever Jews lived, but most particularly in their hometowns—no matter how small.” A memo set out the plan: “Your local Congressman may be the man who will make a decisive speech on the subject on the floor of Congress.” The strategy led the legislatures of 33 states, representing 85 percent of the US population, to pass resolutions favoring a Jewish state.

It may seem absurd to compare this with the situation of blacks in Alabama. But one can be certain that white politicians—in a majority white state—will not take the causes and concerns of blacks to heart if they don’t need to court their votes. The greater the number of black districts, the fewer districts where a significant minority of black voters will be present. This was Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s “Southern strategy”: The Voting Rights Act would, counter-intuitively, provide Republicans the means to overlook the black vote and dog whistle racial themes to Republican whites, once blacks were not a factor in their districts. Those who wonder why Republicans don’t express concern about “urban” issues and such should not be surprised.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Alabama is a state which mandates runoff elections when no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Indeed, such an election was necessitated in 2022, when neither of two Republicans received the required majority in one congressional primary. A small number of black Republicans might have had outsized influence. Nor might such a “diluted” vote be irrelevant even in a close general election, in which a Republican might reach out to black voters in a district a black candidate would be unlikely to win. Competition can matter. Similarly, a centrist black Democrat might be able to hive off moderate Republicans. After all, Raphael Warnock is now the senator from Georgia.

This is not, in any way, to ascribe any benevolent motives to Alabama Republicans, any more than New York Democrats deserve the benefit of the doubt for drawing a congressional map designed to unseat Republicans (as they seem intent on doing once again, despite their last try being overturned by the state’s highest court). It is to say that predominantly black districts drawn to ensure black representation may not be the best way to put the sins of racism behind us—and may increase the odds of less, not more, political and racial polarization.