White Challengers, Black Majorities: Reconciling Competition in Majority-Minority Districts with the Promise of the Voting Rights Act

Janai S. Nelson, White Challengers, Black Majorities: Reconciling Competition in Majority-Minority Districts with the Promise of the Voting Rights Act, 95 Geo. L.J. 1287 (2007).

Abstract:  Among the many strengths of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is its uncompromising confrontation of inequality in election processes arising from either intentional or de facto discrimination. Its aggressive approach to eradicating racial discrimination of both forms may be best exemplified by the use of majority-minority districts which deliberately seek to empower minority citizens with the ability to elect candidates of their choice despite their status as a numerical minority. Nevertheless, despite the obvious intention underlying the creation of majority-minority districts, these districts sometimes produce results antithetical to their purpose and to the promise of the Voting Rights Act – the election of a White challenger who is not the preferred candidate of minority voters in the district or who is perhaps their least preferred candidate. In this article, I explore this episodic phenomenon, which threatens to recur more frequently as the percentages of minority populations in majority-minority districts are lowered and more minority candidates compete with one another in these closed election arenas.

I begin my analysis by setting forth what the Voting Rights Act intends to accomplish in terms of both protecting minority interests and creating minority opportunity. I explore the express and implied guarantees of the statute, with a particular focus on section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as the enabling legislation of majority-minority districts, the definition of “political cohesion,” and the use of majority-minority districts to advance minority interests in the electoral process. I then examine the operation of majority-minority districts in the current political arena through the filter of two Congressional races in which white candidates threatened to, and in one case did, gain advantage in majority-minority districts because of racial splintering of the minority vote. In addition, I examine the role of minority communities in ensuring that majority-minority districts elect their candidates of choice, even when there are outside challengers. The Article concludes by framing queries as to what defeat in these districts could portend for the sustainability of majority-minority districts and of other Voting Rights Act protections.

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