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A test of race-based voter districts

A Florida case will be the next barometer of how far states can go in

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1999



MIAMI

An emotionally charged debate in south Florida is offering a preview of what could become a flood of litigation over efforts to redraw congressional and other voting districts across the United States.

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At issue is the extent to which officials may rely on racial criteria to draw new districts after the all-important 2000 Census.

The issue has been the subject of several US Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s, but the legal standards remain murky. Thus the outcome here could have a direct impact on minority participation and representation in government - and eventually help shape the direction of democracy in America.

Depending on who wins the legal challenges, African-Americans and Hispanics across the country could find themselves losing voices in Congress and state legislatures. On the other side in this case are some white voters who feel disenfranchised because they live in neighborhoods included in strangely shaped districts designed to elect minority candidates. At the heart of the debate: Whether it is appropriate to use racial gerrymandering to compensate for generations of racial discrimination and segregation.

Some analysts argue that the government should use race-neutral methods to draw election districts. But others say that unless some emphasis is placed on racial characteristics, minorities will rarely, if ever, reach the critical mass needed to elect candidates of their choice.

At stake in the Miami case are at least three congressional districts drawn to favor black or Hispanic candidates, and two state Senate districts drawn to favor black candidates.

A lawsuit filed in 1998 by Tom Fouts, a realtor in the Florida Keys, seeks to redraw the districts to make them more compact and confined to specific geographic areas.

Hopscotch districts

Each of the districts was drawn by state lawmakers in 1992 to unite minority neighborhoods (even when those areas were many miles apart) and thus create opportunities to send blacks and Hispanics to Congress and the state legislature.

The result was bizarrely shaped districts with large percentages of minority voters who elected minority members to Congress.

But Mr. Fouts and his lawyers say the exercise amounts to a violation of the US Constitution. Fouts says he doesn't care who the elected representatives are, so long as the method of drawing the voting districts complies with constitutional safeguards.

"The whole purpose of this thing is to tell the state legislature to not do things that are unconstitutional," he says.

Earlier this summer, Fouts's lawyers struck a compromise with officials in the Republican-controlled state legislature. Fouts agreed to drop the two state Senate districts from the suit provided the three congressional districts - 17, 18, and 23 - would be redrawn to make them more compact.

Initially, state officials backed the settlement, eager to avoid costly litigation in districts that will likely be redrawn anyway after the 2000 Census.

But the compromise fell apart after it was denounced by Democrats as a back-room deal that would undermine the voting power of minorities. A panel of three federal judges is set to hear the case next month in Key West.