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March 11, 2008

Voting Rights Act Hurts Obama in Mississippi

Will Majority-Minority Districting Cost Obama Mississippi in Today's Primary? Or at Least Temper His Victory?

Barack Obama has overwhelming support in the few polls conducted in Mississippi. The latest, by InsiderAdvantage, puts him at +17% and suggests that he will have "a solid win" today. This poll and all of Mississippi's polls were weighted to reflect the expected demographics of voters in the state as a whole. That is, the pollsters adjusted the numbers to account for age, race, and gender. All three categories are important predictors of voting behavior, particularly in this primary contest. But the pollsters forgot one important thing: not all districts are demographically equal. That omission may cause Obama to lose the expectations game or worse...the delegate allocation.

The problem is majority-minority districting, the means by which Congress believes nonwhites are elected to House seats. During the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, the committee report suggested without dissent that "it is rare that white voters will cross over to elect minority preferred candidates. For example, in 2000, only 8 percent of African Americans were elected from majority white districts." Of course, this is a deeply misleading statistic given that many blacks and whites had already been segregated into maj-min districts after the 1990 census. The committee ignored the fact that while racial gerrymanders make it easier for nonwhites to be elected in some districts, they make it harder in others. And Congress ignores the sticky issue of equating "minority preferred candidates" with candidates of the same race. (J.C. Watts couldn't be reached for comment, I guess.)

This racial apartheid, as Justice Thomas calls it, continues to exist today in Mississippi. Which means the black vote is heavily concentrated in a single congressional district: the Mississippi 2nd, which includes Jackson and the heavily black western counties. I'm sure you've figured out where I'm going with this. Mississippi's delegates are apportioned according to the vote in each district, not the state as a whole. Obama could take the 2nd with 98% and still only get 7 delegates.

That's the bright side: the 2nd gets the most delegates to allocate (a reward for voting Democratic by the largest percentages in 2000 and 2004). Unfortunately for him, the other three districts have 5 delegates each. Which means that in each "white" district, Clinton is likely to take 3 delegates and maybe more. That's bad news for Obama, who is still looking for a post-Texas and Ohio recovery in the press. Not to mention, this race might just come down to a few votes.

Is a Mississippi upset likely to happen? Just look next door at another state with a maj-min district, Alabama. Obama won the state popular vote 56-42%, but the delegates were awarded (by the "soft count") 27-25. He only took 5 of the 7 delegates in the Alabama 7th (the racial gerrymander) and he only beat Clinton in one other district in the whole state--the 3rd--which includes Montgomery and the University of Auburn.

CNN's exit polls provide no comfort either. In Alabama, 72% of whites voted for Clinton while 84% of blacks voted for Obama (thankfully, voting along such starkly racial lines hasn't been widely repeated elsewhere). If Mississippi's voters break the same way, Obama may be in for a surprisingly disappointing day in this "solid win" state.

But his headaches don't stop there. Mississippi is having an "open primary" which means that, once again, Republicans who care to may cross over and wreak havoc among all the Democratic strategists' hopes and dreams. Many commentators are crediting Clinton's recovery in the March 4th primary to conservatives who want to keep Clinton alive until the convention. I'm not sure the same thing will happen today (InsideAdvantage says it wont, but I'm not sure how they polled for this), but if we see enough raiders, it may at least put to rest the populist canard that the primary system represents "the will of the people."

And that may be one of the two lessons we learn from this. The will of the people is a complex beast, and not easily reduced to numbers. Is it the delegate count? The popular vote by state? The popular vote in the nation as a whole? Or the popular vote by congressional district? More than that, the proportional allocation preferred by Democrats does not appear to be as representative as they had hoped, especially when the primaries are open to Republican raiders.

But real irony overwhelms any other lesson when one considers that the court-approved segregation of the Voting Rights Act may be taking delegates from this country's first serious black contender for president. Some Democrats may even realize that dividing us according to skin color is not a good remedy for racial discrimination.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 05:13 AM

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