Posted on July 20, 2004

Concentrating Minority Voters Builds Liberal Strength

Business Wire, Jul. 19

Did liberals shoot themselves in the foot when they amended the Voting Rights Act to promote the creation of so-called majority-minority districts? Political scientists have argued for more than a decade that creating safe liberal seats by culling large numbers of minority voters from conservative districts has inadvertently made southern congressional delegations more conservative than ever.

Not so, according to new research by Kenneth Shotts, associate professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“The fraction of southern representatives to the left … increased after racial redistricting in the 1990s, a pattern that contrasts starkly with the well-known fact that the number of southern Democrats decreased during this period. My finding implies that racial redistricting promotes liberal policy outcomes,” Shotts wrote in a paper published in The Journal of Politics in February 2003.

To most Americans, gerrymandering is probably something of a dirty word. It implies the creation of oddly shaped congressional districts designed to give one political party an unfair advantage over another while creating legislatures that are not reflective of the voting population.

Although that’s often been the case, the racial gerrymandering following the 1990 Census was designed to make Congress more reflective of the voting population by increasing the number of minority representatives.

The courts created new majority-minority districts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, and strengthened minority control of an existing majority-minority district in Mississippi.

But in 1994, the Gingrich revolution put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and put the Speaker’s conservative Contract with America on the front burner. Many scholars and political pundits concluded that overall, the redistricting helped Gingrich by making majority-controlled districts even more conservative than they were.

The controversial redistricting effort and its apparent misfire quickly attracted academic attention. One of those studying the topic was Kenneth Shotts, then a Stanford graduate student. “I had a theory that racial redistricting was actually pushing policy outcomes to the left. Frankly, I assumed that when I developed empirical data on the subject, I’d prove myself wrong,” he said.

He certainly seemed wrong. Given that Democrats suffered dramatic losses in southern House delegations in the 1990s, it would be natural to expect a similar decrease in the number of liberal southern representatives, Shotts wrote.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Shotts had embraced a theory of political decision making called “the median legislator model.” Simply put, the model ranks members of Congress (or other bodies) from left to right by comparing their votes to scorecards compiled by groups like Americans for Democratic Action.

Members close to the median typically become key swing votes when the rest of the legislature is pulling in opposite directions. The median, of course, is not a fixed point. As the composition of the House changes, its median — and hence policy outcomes — move to the left or to the right.

Other theorists used statistical models to predict the preferences of representatives who would be elected under different redistricting models. Shotts instead focused on actual electoral outcomes before and after racial redistricting.

Examined in this light, it appears that the liberal strength in the southern House delegations increased noticeably between 1992 and 1996. The fraction of liberals in the South grew from an average of 38 percent in 1986-1990 to an average of 44 percent in 1992-1996, Shotts found. “I was stunned by the data,” he said.

Liberals who first won election to the House in 1992 after racial redistricting took effect included Eva Clayton (NC), Melvin Watt (NC), Cynthia McKinney (GA), Sanford Bishop (GA), James Clyburn (SC), Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), Bobby Scott (VA), Earl Hilliard (AL), Corrine Brown (FL), Carrie Meek (FL), Alcee Hastings (FL).

Shotts explains the shift in the southern delegations this way: “From the perspective of a median legislator model of policy choice, replacing a conservative Democrat with a highly conservative Republican does not affect policy outcomes. Replacing a conservative Democrat with a liberal minority representative shifts the median, and hence policy outcomes, to the left.”

In liberal states, however, the logic is reversed. Since states like New York or California are predisposed to send liberals to Washington, racial redistricting that results in the creation of some lily-white conservative districts adds representatives who fall to the right of the median, thus moving national policy outcomes to the right.

And in any case, the shift of the nation to the right during that period was influenced more by Republican victories in the Rocky Mountain states and the Senate, where racial redistricting did not occur.