Brent Tarter. Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019. vii + 130 pp. $19.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4320-6.
Reviewed by Tonnia L. Anderson (University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma)
Published on H-Atlantic (March, 2020)
Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall (Cameron University of Oklahoma)
Gerrymanders in Viriginia
The existence of popular sovereignty, or the idea that government exists to serve citizens who elect representatives to express their will, is central to American democracy. Yet one of the paradoxes of American democracy—one that can be seen in the gap between democratic ideals and reality—is the concept of political representation, with its long history of inequality and exclusion. Typically, the narrative of exclusion is readily applied to historically marginalized groups as an unfortunate “hiccup” within our governmental system, whose norms otherwise are geared expressly towards the protection of justice, individual liberty, equality, and the integrity of electoral institutions. This ideal of American democracy, however, resonates sharply against the effects of gerrymandering in which popular sovereignty is eroded by legally disenfranchising millions of voters. In his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Barak Obama indicated that political reform was urgently needed to combat the ills of gerrymandering, malapportionment, and voter suppression. “Democracy breaks down,” Obama said, “when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.” While political observers and commentators from the nineteenth century to the present day have warned against the pitfalls of gerrymandering as a threat to the integrity of electoral institutions and consequently to representative government, political scholars have tended to minimize its impact until recently. Moreover, attention has centered largely on political parties’ control of the US Congress rather than on state legislatures or local districts.
By examining the evolution of representational government for Virginia, from the colonial era to the present, Brent Tarter’s Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia presents the first in-depth historical study on the subject that sheds considerable insight into the methods, motivations, and consequences of gerrymanders across time. As such, this case study is a much-needed contribution that fills a void within the scholarship on gerrymandering because of its focus on state legislatures, directly challenging the notion that “the redistricting of state legislatures is less subject to partisan gerrymandering and resulting partisan bias than popular commentary would suggest.” The book reveals the extent to which powerful special interests groups within Virginia have manipulated electoral institutions at the expense of the one person, one vote principle upon which American government rests. Tarter argues that “suffrage restrictions and apportionment schemes have worked in tandem to shape the state’s political culture and the nature of its undemocratic politics and unrepresentative government” (p. 5). In certain respects, Gerrymanders can be seen as an extension of an earlier work, Grandees of Government (2013) in which Tarter examines the undemocratic political culture within the state and why it has been so resistant to change. Gerrymanders elaborates on this earlier work, showing how representatives, too often, have chosen their voters instead of allowing voters to choose their representatives.
Written for a popular audience, Gerrymanders presents a concise narrative that is readily digestible for any reader unlike so much scholarship on the subject dominated by complex political theories, advanced mathematical formulas, and legal jargon. The book consists of twelve short chapters that generally fit within four sections describing the beneficiaries of gerrymandering in Virginia: landowners, slaveholders, white supremacists, and partisan groups. Tarter begins by carefully defining the term gerrymander and presents an overview of the problems it poses to representational government historically and presently in light of the fact that in 2021 the Virginia General Assembly district lines will be redrawn for the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, and lastly for the US House of Representatives.
Chapters 2 through 4 address the nature of representative government. In this section Tarter raises the fundamental question of whom or what representative government actually represents and who is allowed to participate within the electoral process. Under the British model, virtual representation in Parliament existed through simply being a subject of the king and it afforded no opportunities for gerrymandering. In the seventeenth century, voter participation was clearly defined as were the areas from which representatives were elected. Burgesses in colonial Virginia were simply charged with using their best judgment in promoting the overall interests of the colony. However, Tarter indicates that those ideas about representation and restrictive suffrage laws in Virginia ironically laid the foundation for the gerrymandering in subsequent centuries. By the dawn of the eighteenth century, free white male landowners who paid taxes existed as the only group eligible for political participation. White women, free blacks, free white males who did not meet the property and tax requirements, and Catholics were excluded from political participation. By the time of the American Revolution, the exclusion of these groups had led to an understanding that political representatives would represent the views and interests of their so-called legitimate electors, that is, white male landowners. Although the Virginia General Assembly reduced the property requirement in 1785, it still “denied a large part—probably a majority—of adult white men and thereby politically privileged the class of adult, white, male landowners” (p. 14).
Relatedly, chapters 5 through 6 examine the political pressures exerted by slavery and the push for universal white male suffrage on Virginia's voting system. During this era the idea of Jacksonian Democracy displaced the English prerequisite that only “white men who literally owned a part of the country had ‘sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with and attachment to, the community’” (p. 22). However, rather than capitulate to the growing trend toward universal white male suffrage—a trend that was viewed as a threat to the institution of slavery—the Virginia Constitution of 1830 was modified to acknowledge slaves as property, thereby enabling slaveholders to claim the franchise even if they did not meet voter qualifications in landholdings. In addition, the three-fifths slave clause was appropriated from the United States Constitution and inserted into the Virginia Constitution as a mechanism to redistrict congressional seats in favor of slaveholding districts in the eastern part of the state. The result of these changes was to solidify the hegemony of slaveholders. In 1851, universal white male suffrage was finally granted, but Tarter indicates that, in many ways, strict laws that furthered slaveholder interests countered this concession and even strengthened their dominance politically and ideologically.
The next section (chapters 7 through 10) begins and ends with the periods of reconstruction, the first occurring after the Civil War and the second occurring as a result of the civil rights movement. This section examines how race and white supremacy replaced slavery as central features within the state’s political culture after the Civil War and dominated it for two-thirds of the twentieth century. As the end of Reconstruction approached, Tarter indicates, gradual disenfranchisement replaced gerrymandering as a mechanism, “reducing challenges to elite white domination of Virginia’s politics and government” as a result of extending the franchise to African Americans during Reconstruction (p. 41). However, African Americans continued to have a political presence into the 1890s in spite of laws such as the Anderson-McCormick Act (1884) and the Walton Act (1894), which were designed both to limit their participation and to ensure victories for Democrats. The suffrage provisions within the Constitution of 1902, though, were effective not just in reducing the African American vote but in reducing the white vote as well. According to Tarter, the “number of white voters declined by about 50 percent, and the small number of remaining black voters declined by about 90 percent ... [such that] the effect of the Constitution of 1902 was to reduce the Virginia electorate to a smaller proportion of the adult male population than at any time in Virginia’s history and guarantee Democratic victories” (pp. 48-9). In addition to discriminatory practices aimed at reducing voter participation, malapportionment worked to overrepresent sparsely populated rural areas and underrepresent densely populated urban and suburban areas, creating legislative district lines in which a minority of voters could theoretically elect a majority of senators and a majority of delegates to the Virginia legislature. While chapters 7 and 8, profoundly illustrate the vulnerability of American democracy when electoral institutions are manipulated to provide a predetermined outcome, chapters 9 and 10 demonstrate the power of the US Supreme Court and Congress to address inequities created through voter suppression and malapportionment. But as Tarter indicates in the last section of the book, partisan gerrymandering that is not explicitly based upon racial discrimination is a more problematic beast.
In the last section of the Gerrymanders, Tarter looks at the impact of partisan gerrymandering in the twenty-first century. Just as Democrats had used partisan gerrymandering to dominate the political landscape in Virginia for most of the twentieth century, Republicans have followed suit in the twenty-first century. Sophisticated technology has “enabled partisans to analyze population data and voting behavior down to and even below voting district levels, which even though they were obviously drawn for partisan advantage met all criteria … the Voting Rights Act required” (p. 83). By implementing the gerrymandering tactics of packing (consolidating voters of one party into the same district) and cracking (splintering and redistributing voters of a particular party into other districts), Republicans in Virginia have made elections less competitive and their outcomes more predictable. In addition to these tactics, Tarter identifies new restrictions and requirements on voter registration designed to target minorities, who generally vote Democratic. Although ostensibly created to combat voter fraud, Tarter notes that these laws “recall the poll tax, difficult registration tests, and literacy requirements of an earlier era, designed to disfranchise African American voters” (p. 90). As recent legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering have emerged, such as Gill v. Whitford (2018), the US Supreme Court has been reluctant to confront it, unlike the Warren Court. In the rat race to reinforce or reassert partisan control prior to the mandated redistricting of 2021, the outcome is uncertain.
Brent Tarter's Gerrymanders reminds us of the pressing need to conscientiously evaluate the nature of representative government in the United States and who or what elected officials should represent at a time when Western democracies across the globe are being criticized. Although a few segments within the latter portion of the book are a little difficult to follow because of rapid shifts back and forth in time, it is successful in communicating this complex history in a manner readily comprehensible to a popular audience. Too often, though, the connections between the social and political systems of the past and those of the present go unrecognized by popular audiences. This point is especially true in terms of slavery and its ideological legacy. While Tarter attributes the growing acceptance of proslavery ideology among the nonslaveholding classes to the disappearance of men and women who had experienced the American Revolution, this explanation seems incomplete and in need of further clarification, especially since this ideology lays the foundation for negrophobia and white supremacy for the next one hundred years. Furthermore, de jure and de facto systems of exclusion normalized marginalization (regardless of race) within the public sphere for those who did not represent the elite. The elite signified the potential for social, political, and economic upward mobility for the masses outside of it. Ironically, this identification of elite with popular interests reinforced the hegemony of the powerful few and contributed to the viability of gerrymandering when older systems of marginalization had collapsed. In spite of this, Tarter creates a powerful narrative of exclusion using the intersections of race, class, and to a lesser extent, gender to demonstrate how discriminatory manipulations within representational government have grown like a disease, impacting not just racial minorities but all citizens except those who directly benefit from gerrymandering. His narrative poses the question as to whether or not the benefits for a powerful few are really worth the price of sacrificing voter trust in representational government. In short, Tarter blazes a gutsy path that other historians should follow to shed more light on this important subject.
. See Charles Bullock, “Redistricting and Congressional Stability, 1962-1972,” Journal of Politics 37 (1975): 569-75; Bruce Cain, “Accessing the Partisan Effects of Redistricting,” American Political Science Review 79 (1985): 320-33; Janet Campagna and Bernard Grofman, “Party Control and Partisan Bias in the 1980s Congressional Redistricting,” Journal of Politics 52 (1990): 1242-58; Richard Niemi and Simon Jackson, “Bias and Responsiveness in State Legislative Districting,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 16 (1991): 183-202.
. Niemi and Jackman, “Bias and Responsiveness,” 198.
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Tonnia L. Anderson. Review of Tarter, Brent, Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia.
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