Winning elections at the local and state levels

Amy Howe explains the significance of an opinion handed down on Wednesday by the US Supreme Court concerning the way that electoral districts were drawn in Virginia.

This morning the Supreme Court handed a partial victory to a group of Virginia voters who argued that the 12 state legislative districts in which they live were the result of racial gerrymandering. The justices agreed with the challengers that a lower court had applied the wrong legal standard when it upheld all 12 districts, and the court ordered the lower court to take another look at 11 of those districts. This means that the battle over the redistricting maps that were drawn for Virginia’s state elections after the 2010 census will continue on well into this year, even as the state prepares to hold new elections in November.

The 12 districts at the heart of today’s case were drawn with a specific goal in mind for each: an African-American population of 55 percent. Both the Virginia House of Delegates and the U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the maps, but the plaintiffs in today’s case argue that the architects of the maps engaged in racial gerrymandering. They contend that the 12 districts were illegally packed with African-Americans, which in turn diluted the voting strength of African-Americans in other nearby districts, making the other districts friendlier to Republicans.

The challenge went to a three-judge district court, which upheld all 12 districts.

In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court agreed with the challengers that the district court used the wrong test in deciding whether race was the primary factor motivating the legislature to pack black voters into the 12 districts. The district court had looked at whether the challengers had shown “an actual conflict between the enacted plan and traditional redistricting principles.” Although such a test might at one point, the court suggested, have been “reconcilable” with the court’s cases, later cases had made clear that race can be the primary factor even when a redistricting plan is consistent with traditional redistricting criteria.

While gerrymandering may not be the sole, or even the main, reason why Republicans seem to have a stranglehold on so many congressional districts and state and local governments, it does reduce the number of districts that can be swayed one way or the other in elections and thus diminishes democracy.

What is even more important is to have vigorous political activism at the local level. The widespread resistance to Donald Trump that has sprung up has to be harnessed to become a permanent force. Even during the November election, there were some signals that this kind of activism works. Andrew Cockburn describes in the March issue of Harper’s magazine of how progressives in the Houston region in deep-red Texas almost swept the elections in the region and provides a hopeful model of what might be achieved elsewhere, contrasting the jubilation that was felt in that area with the mournful atmosphere nationwide as Clinton’s defeat sank in.

This funereal atmosphere was replicated wherever Democrats were gathered across the nation — with one instructive exception. In the Heights neighborhood of Houston, hundreds of revelers thronged bars along Studewood Street late into the night.

The reason was simple. Unlike the rest of the country, Houston Democrats had a full-scale Republican rout to celebrate. The party had swept the polls in Harris County, the vast region encompassing Houston, arguably the nation’s most diverse city (as locals never tire of repeating). With 4.5 million inhabitants, the county is more populous than half the states in America. Now Harris voters had elected a Democratic district attorney — a very powerful post in Texas law enforcement — for the first time in thirty-six years. The Democrats had also captured almost every other slot on the ballot, including the tax assessor’s office, which oversees voter registration: a crucial win in an age of Republican voter suppression.

Furthermore, these local victories carried over to the top of the ticket. Though it probably did little to lighten the mood in the Javits Center, Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump by more than 160,000 votes in a county that Barack Obama had carried by fewer than a thousand in 2012.

The Houston activists did it not by trying to win over white and middle class voters (the strategy of the national Democratic party) but by aggressively seeking out and listening to the large number of poor and minority voters about their concerns and why they had been voting in such appallingly low numbers, allowing the Republicans to dominate. The answer they got was that those people felt that voting for Democrats seemed to make no difference in their lives even when they got elected. By then recruiting candidates who were firmly committed to speaking out and addressing those formerly ignored needs, these activists managed to swim against the national tide and win offices.


  1. KG says

    Two comments here:
    1) If I haven’t said this here before, I’m sure someone else has, but it still bears repeating: to any non-American from any country with more-or-less free elections, it is utterly bizarre that in most of the USA, drawing electoral boundaries is the responsibility of the currently dominant politcial party. How could this not lead to systematic gerrymandering?
    2) This:

    The Houston activists did it not by trying to win over white and middle class voters (the strategy of the national Democratic party) but by aggressively seeking out and listening to the large number of poor and minority voters about their concerns and why they had been voting in such appallingly low numbers, allowing the Republicans to dominate.

    expresses a political and strategic choice confronting every leftish party or movement trying to win votes: poorer (and younger) voters are everywhere* less likely to vote than richer and older ones. The choice made by the Houston activists might not always be the right one strategically -- but it surely is always the right one in terms of principle if you actually care about either socio-economic equality, or democracy.

    *I’d guess this is so even when voting is compulsory -- poorer and younger people are more likely to slip through the net.

  2. anat says

    KG, in Washington state redistricting is done by a commission that has 2 representatives of the majority party, 2 of the minority party and one non-voting chairperson who is selected by the 4 partisan members. Not much dissatisfaction with districts here.

    The problem we do have here is that few districts are competitive, especially at the congressional level, because the state is pretty much split between a blue more urbanized west side and a red rural east. The legislative districts are a bit more interesting, with some suburban districts and some on the more rural parts of western Washington being competitive.

    One proposed solution is to allow legislative districts and city or county councils to choose other methods for electing their representatives or local governing bodies. is promoting ranked choice voting.

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