A test of race-based voter districts

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

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.

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.

Some opponents of the deal say it would set a dangerous precedent for minority districts immediately prior to massive, nationwide redistricting.

Diluted black vote

Terence Anderson, a University of Miami law professor and legal counsel to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D, District 23), says under the proposed settlement the level of black voters in Mr. Hastings' south Florida district would be reduced from 49 percent to 36 percent.

While Hastings, a popular and charismatic congressman, would likely win reelection in the district despite the reduced minority percentage, it is less clear that another black candidate would do as well, Mr. Anderson says.

A similar reduction would take place in the districts of Rep. Carrie Meek (D, District 17) and Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, District 18).

"The question is when they step down will they leave a district where an African-American [or other minority] will have an opportunity to be elected," says Anderson.

Fouts's lawyer, David Paul Horan of Key West, says that in redistricting the ends cannot justify the means.

"You can't make one person's vote more important than another person's vote on the basis of race," Mr. Horan says.

He says minority congressional districts in Florida were drawn in a way that resembles kites with long tails with bows waving in the wind. Horan says the settlement in the case sought to cut the tails off the kites and beef up the main part of the district by adding surrounding territory to the body of the kite.

The action diluted the minority position in the districts, but Horan says such efforts are necessary to bring the districts into compliance with the mandates of the US Constitution.

Horan says one way to avoid a constitutional quagmire would be for state legislators to use only straight lines when drawing new districts and to keep them simple and compact.

By contrast, many of the minority districts drawn by state legislators in 1992 resemble the outline of a squashed spider.

"Just draw big squares and rectangles," suggests Fouts.

But Anderson counters that sometimes minority neighborhoods that are far from one another share more common interests and concerns than with adjacent well-to-do white neighborhoods.

'Communities of interest'

Communities of interest aren't necessarily always located next to one another, he says, and state lawmakers can take that into account when drawing districts.

Horan counters that race should not be a factor in determining communities of interest. Instead, urban neighborhoods should be placed in urban districts and rural areas in rural districts. "People who are country people ought to be able to vote with country people because they have common interests," he says.

In south Florida, Hastings's district extends from urban Miami and suburban Fort Lauderdale out to the fields of sugar cane south of Lake Okeechobee.

Anderson says the federal judges in the Miami case should dismiss Fouts's suit and allow the districts to be redrawn after new census data are acquired.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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