The minority voting rights imperative

An open letter to the governor on protecting minority voting rights during redistricting

Dear Governor Patrick:

Few Americans are more aware than you of the salient and inherent value of the right to vote and the importance and indispensability of representative democracy. 

Having once served as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP, as chief counsel for the Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division, and now as governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you are all too cognizant of the sovereignty of the vote, especially as it pertains to historically disenfranchised groups.  The arc of your professional career and the trajectory of your public life are distinctly marked with a belief in the democratic process and a disposition toward building consensus and community.

For these reasons it is important that you direct your attention to the issue of redistricting in the Commonwealth and stand as an advocate for electoral fairness and the end of race-based gerrymandering.

As you know, the redistricting process now underway in our state presents great opportunities to correct forms of electoral injustice that ostensibly function as civic barriers for millions of minorities. These barriers persist as roadblocks that impede full political participation for blacks, Latinos, and Asians in mainstream civil society.  They serve as stumbling blocks and impediments that stunt the efforts of public engagement among the poor and foster social alienation, distrust and cynicism toward government.

Consider this inconvenient truth: minorities in this state now make up 20 percent of its diversity, but are only 5 percent of the elected officials in the State House.  Add to this an unfortunate legacy of contentious litigation forced by minority citizens about voting rights over the last four decades: The Black Political Task Force was compelled to sue the Secretary of the Commonwealth in 1988 over redistricting infractions that clearly violated voting rights.  In 1993, The Black Political Task Force filed suit again on matters of voter disenfranchisement.  A Latino voting rights group filed claims in federal court against the City of Lawrence in 2002 regarding language ballot access improprieties.  In 2003, The Black Political Task Force sued Secretary of State William Galvin on unfairly drawn state representative districts.  And in 2005 the Chinese Progressive Association bought claims to federal judges that the City of Boston had violated the rights of Asian voters.  Sadly, in each of these cases, minority claims were confirmed by the federal courts. 

In 2011, the stakes are high for communities of color during the redistricting process. This is because in the past, the state redistricting committees have wittingly or unwittingly “cracked” and “packed” communities of color in such ways that minorities were denied the opportunity to elect representation in proportion to their real and aggregate numbers.  Put simply, the natural political influence and voting strength of minorities have been diluted decade after decade in the Commonwealth, even as the minority presence has increased significantly.  According to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this practice of “packing” and “cracking” for the purposes of preserving political incumbency and racial advantage is wrong because it unfairly suppresses the political expression of racial minorities, subjugating them to the will and whim of historically privileged and powerful white majorities.   Over the years, minority voters have systematically been assigned into districts where their vote has diminished power.  The effects of this unfortunate practice among minorities have led to political indifference, low voter participation rates and cynicism towards government.  To be sure, racial gerrymandering in Massachusetts is a ritual profoundly practiced.  For the sake of all citizens it should cease; and these facts should compel us to act.

The growth of the minority community in the Commonwealth over the last decade has been substantial. The Latino and Asian communities grew by 46 percent respectively. And the African-American community increased statewide by 26 percent. Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Africans, Chinese and Vietnamese now comprise a vibrant mix of immigrants throughout the state. Such cities as Springfield, Brockton, Randolph and Chelsea are now populated by majority-minority residents. Cities such as Worcester and Lynn are now significantly influenced by growing minority sub-populations. In light of such growth, redistricting justice on behalf of minorities is not only fair, it’s necessary. It is not only a practical thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

Wholly aware of the enormous implications of the redistricting process, a coalition of organizations and advocates have been working assiduously over that last year for redistricting justice. Members of the coalition have attended each of the Legislature’s statewide redistricting hearings. Redistricting advocate organizations have held more than three dozen community and strategy meetings in Boston and across the state. Meetings have been held with leadership of the State Joint Committee for Redistricting on Beacon Hill and in the community.  Briefings have been conducted with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus as well as with your senior administrative, legal and legislative staff.  A redistricting review session has been held with US Sen. Scott Brown and a briefing is scheduled with US Sen. John Kerry.

The work of the coalitions and advocates has generated practical redistricting solutions, in terms of proffering new statewide and congressional maps.  In July, the New Democracy Coalition and the Mass Black Empowerment Coalition presented a newly revamped statewide map to the Joint Committee for Redistricting that would effectively bring an end to race-based gerrymandering in the state.  If the Joint Committee on Redistricting simply implemented these maps, the number of black and Latino representatives would increase by 100 percent from 10 to 20 members by calling for the creation of new state representative seats in Springfield, Chelsea, Brockton and Randolph and new state Senate seats in Boston, Lawrence and Springfield.

Most importantly, it is now possible to create a new majority-minority incumbent-free congressional district that will, for the first-time, allow for the likelihood of electing the first person of color to the US House of Representatives.  By creating this new congressional district you singularly can put an end to a particularly pernicious form of “cracking” in Boston’s black community and unify a critical “community of interest” which currently has its political influence diluted between two Congressional districts.  Moreover, creating a new congressional district that extends south of Boston to Brockton will unite in a common district the influence of hundreds of thousands of protected class minorities.

In order to expand the democratic foundations of the Commonwealth, districts must now be drawn in a clear, transparent fashion.  And careful attention must be given to minority voters to reverse historic discrimination, and provide electoral representation that has too long been denied. This can only be achieved by ensuring uncontested opportunities for political expression among historically disenfranchised groups such as blacks, Latinos and Asians.  Put differently,  the Commonwealth must employ a moral logic of redistricting that seeks to achieve the broadest range of civic opportunities in the state; it must commit to an effort of civic realignment that takes seriously the goal of individual freedom and equality, especially for groups that have been the most adversely impacted during past redistricting cycles. 

Toward this end we respectfully ask the following:

  • That you veto any redistricting legislation that does not reflect political equity for minority groups in the Commonwealth;
  • That you employ the capacity of your legal team to articulate to the state Legislature all the reasons and facts that compel the Commonwealth to follow federal law and judicial admonishment as it pertains to the protected voting classes in Massachusetts; and
  • That that you publicly convey your sensitivities regarding how meaningful it is to finally bring an end to race-based gerrymandering and the deleterious effects such practices have had on historically disenfranchised groups.

As you know, there is a federal case to be made in support of fair redistricting for minorities in Massachusetts.  In a 2004 ruling on the matter of The Black Political Task Force v. Commonwealth, the federal courts agreed that the full expression of the political influence of black voters were curtailed in the redistricting process in several of  Boston’s black communities.  In the US Supreme Court case Lulac v. Perry, minority plaintiffs were supported in their claim that Latino citizens were violated in their attempt to create a majority-minority US House of Representative seat based upon their population in the state.  In Johnson v. Degrandy, the rights of minority voters to maximize their their political influence, when feasible and when possible, were duly affirmed.  In Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court articulated the extraordinary value of the Voting Rights Act.  In its decision the court acknowledges the Voting Rights Act in “its grant of authority to the federal courts to uncover official efforts to abridge minorities’ right to vote, [and that it] has been of vital importance in eradicating invidious discrimination from the electoral process and enhancing the legitimacy of our political institutions. Only if our political system and our society cleanse themselves of that discrimination will all members of the polity share an equal opportunity to gain public office regardless of race.” 

Governor, your attention to this matter is critical, not only because there now exists an opportunity to correct decades of race-based gerrymandering in the Commonwealth.  But because now is the time to create new access points of civic engagement for citizens who have been too long vulnerable to political practices that suppress their rights and equal standing in the public square. Now is the time to end civic practices that erode faith and trust in the workings of governance, especially among minorities and the poor.  Now is the time to apply a restorative balm of social justice that not only heals the body politic but establishes new pathways toward stronger and more resilient civic sensibilities.

The outcomes of the redistricting process now underway will certainly dictate the degree to which our state will either thrive as a comity dedicated to unfettered democratic commitments or be reduced to a mere collective of citizens largely unconcerned about the civil rights and protections of minorities.

Meet the Author

Thank you in advance for your thoughtful consideration on this matter.

Kevin Peterson is executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice, and co-chair of the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition.