Shades of Grey: Virginia’s Ongoing Struggle to Ensure Proportionate Minority Representation

By: Hannah Thomson

As of 2014, African Americans made up just under 20% of Virginia’s total population. Yet, of the eleven congressmen and women elected from Virginia, incumbent Bobby Scott is currently the only African American representing the state, and only the second to be elected in the state’s entire history. This means that, while amounting to almost 20% of the total population, only 9% of Virginia’s seats in the House of Representatives are held by African Americans. Statistics improve slightly when looking at Virginia’s General Assembly. Of the one hundred members of the House of Delegates, thirteen representatives are African American (13%); of Virginia’s forty senators, five are African American (12.5%). Ultimately, a total 12.8% of the Virginia’s legislators are African American, falling about 6% below the total African American population in the state.

In recent years, concerns about the under-representation of minority groups have been reflected through a plethora of litigation in Virginian state and federal courts, concerning the drawing of congressional and general assembly districts. Most recently, the Supreme Court of Virginia was asked to consider whether redistricting plans drawn up in the wake of the 2010 census were constitutional, despite packing African Americans into a single majority-minority district (indeed, Virginia’s only minority-majority district – represented by Congressman Scott himself).

The issue in this line of cases arose as a result of an increase in the percentage of the African American voting population included within the district lines (from 53% to 56%). Petitioners argued this violated the contiguous and compact district requirements under Article II of the Constitution of Virginia, and had the effect of diluting African American votes in other districts by concentrating them in a district in which African Americans already constituted a significant majority. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and suggested that a federal judicial panel reconsider whether the district had the discriminatory effect alleged. The judicial panel required Virginian legislators to redraw the map by September 3, a deadline that has passed without action by the state.

Minority representation is an issue many jurisdictions across the globe struggle with. An international comparison may therefore provide helpful insight into possible ways of ensuring fair and adequate political representation for minority groups. New Zealand provides an interesting case study. With a total population numbering little over half the population of the state of Virginia alone, the national-to-state comparison is not unsuitable.

Over 14% of the New Zealand population identify as Māori – the largest minority group in the country. Like African Americans across the United States, Māori have traditionally been proportionately underrepresented in New Zealand government. For this reason, New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1993 re-codified distinct Māori electoral districts, which have existed since 1975. Under the Act, Māori persons who elect to enrol on the separate Māori electoral roll, rather than the general roll, have their votes counted separately from those of the general population, and are guaranteed a minimum number of representatives in Parliament. Currently, Māori are guaranteed at least seven of New Zealand’s 121 Parliamentary seats. This number will continue to increase in proportion to the number of enrollments on the Māori electoral roll.

The law guaranteeing Māori representation is open to application in local elections as well as national, though as yet no local government has implemented it. In fact, movements towards implementing reserved Māori seats on local councils have stagnated, highlighting tensions between support for ensuring minority representation in government, and concerns about according Māori votes disproportionate weight, compared to those of the general population. On the whole, though, guaranteed Māori Parliamentary seats have been a fundamental and generally accepted element of New Zealand’s electoral system for over two decades.

For Virginia, the comparison with New Zealand may raise more questions than it solves. Whether reserved minority seats would be effective in Virginia’s system is unclear. Indeed, whether guaranteed representation should even be attempted remains up for debate. How can we justify ensuring representation for African Americans while failing to do the same for other minority groups? Does ensuring Congressional seats for minorities homogenise such groups, by presuming their political interests to be cohesive and inherently linked to racial identity? The answers to these questions are not easily resolved.

Yet, while it cannot be ignored that – as one of only three countries worldwide without a written constitution – New Zealand’s political landscape is vastly divergent from America’s, New Zealand’s electoral process provides an interesting example of the way other nations choose to deal with minority representation in government.

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