Shifting Racial Make-Up of D.C

By: Randolph Critzer

Few places in the United States can offer a snapshot of American politics quite like Washington D.C. There are over 650,000 people living in the District, which serves not only as the focal point of our federal system, but also as the local and pseudo-state level government for its many residents.

And in many ways D.C. is more a state than most people realize. Many acknowledge that the issue of population deviation and political gerrymandering has been a plague on state legislatures nationwide. So much so, that the Supreme Court has repeatedly stepped in to protect the constitutional right to an equally weighted vote. One-person, one-vote, as the standard is known, gives little if no leeway for federal congressional districts to vary in terms of total population per legislative district, and allows the States only a 10% total population deviation when it comes to state district lines.

So one might think that D.C., not being exposed to the same processes of a state legislature, would be immune from the issue of population deviation, but a close inspection of D.C.’s recent history yields some contrary results.

The D.C. city council is made up of 13 members: 5 elected at-large, and one elected from each of the city’s 8 wards. Today, those wards are mandated to reflect one-eighth apiece of the city’s total population (much like what occurs in the 50 states), but as it turns out, this was not so until 2001. In fact, prior to what is known as the D.C. Election Act, the population of each of the wards varied substantially. Hence the legislation, and hence the evidence that not even the District is immune to the addiction of vote dilution (although it will be important to note that the D.C. Election Act only allows for a 5% deviation, unlike the states).

But here’s the draw: voters in the 8 wards prior to 2001 did have their votes diluted, although not in the same way we’re used to.

In an interesting point of fact, Washington D.C. is the only state (or rather, pseudo-state) in the nation where African Americans actually make up a majority of the citizenry. It’s a proud fact; the nation’s capital has been strongly, historically black for nearly a century, and the politics and culture of the city reflect that. It certainly is a twist on traditional majority-minority roles at play throughout the rest of the U.S.

To its credit, the District does a pretty good job of representing its electorate proportionally. The racial make-up of the council is roughly 50/50, with 6 black representatives and 7 white. What’s also interesting is the way in which white voters came out in droves in 2014 elections, changing the makeup of the city council, and showing a mostly-white electorate for the first time in many, many years. This was a striking change for a government that is already a bit of an anomaly.

The city is becoming less majority-black and more of an even racial mix every year. Only time will tell how the political processes of the District, the redistricting ordinance, and the shifting racial and electoral patterns will interact with one another in the nation’s capital.

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