Revisiting Majority-Minority Districts and Black Representation

AuthorWilliam D. Hicks,Carl E. Klarner,Seth C. McKee,Daniel A. Smith
Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 408 –423
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917738574
Ever since the United States moved toward a more inclu-
sive and democratic system of elections, the color of rep-
resentation has been a major concern of American politics
scholars (Whitby 1997). Particularly in the American
South,1 the end of Jim Crow and the subsequent massive
re-enfranchisement of African-Americans via the 1965
Voting Rights Act (VRA) made it evident that eventually
there would be many local settings where blacks would
finally have the ability to elect one of their own (Bullock
and Gaddie 2009; Davidson and Grofman 1994; Valelly
2004). Indeed, in the five Deep South states (Alabama,
Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina)
containing the region’s highest African-American popu-
lations, all of their upper and lower legislative chambers
now consist of majority-black Democratic state legisla-
tive delegations that face off against much larger and
almost entirely white Republican delegations controlling
these legislatures (McKee and Springer 2015).
In this context, descriptive representation—meaning
the election of black legislators who represent the inter-
ests of mostly African-American constituencies (Swain
1993; Tate 2003)—is a major feature of the contemporary
American political landscape, especially in southern
states where the black electorate is substantial. The rise in
black representation, however, has raised some notable
normative issues (Canon 1999), specifically in terms of
party politics. The work of Epstein and O’Halloran (1999,
2000, 2006) makes it clear that with the emergence of the
southern Grand Old Party (GOP), the growth in the num-
ber of majority-minority districts has come at the direct
electoral expense of white Democrats, as the attendant
increase in the number of neighboring majority-white
districts now greatly favors Republicans (Black 1998;
Hill 1995; Kousser 1999; Lamis 1999).
The crowding out of white Democrats in electoral
politics would not (perhaps) be that great a concern if it
did not also contribute to an overall reduction in the size
of Democratic delegations. But the replacement of white
Democrats with black Democrats has been anything but
one-to-one (McKee 2010; Petrocik and Desposato 1998),
738574PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917738574Political Research QuarterlyHicks et al.
1Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA
2University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
3Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
Corresponding Author:
Daniel A. Smith, Department of Political Science, University of
Florida, 234 Anderson Hall, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
Revisiting Majority-Minority Districts
and Black Representation
William D. Hicks1, Carl E. Klarner2, Seth C. McKee3,
and Daniel A. Smith2
What is the minimum black population necessary to elect African-American state lawmakers? We offer the most
comprehensive examination of the election of black state legislators in the post-Thornburg v. Gingles (1986) era. We
begin by charting changes in the partisan affiliation of state legislators and the percentage of black legislators from
1971 to 2016. This descriptive assessment is undertaken according to important regional (Non-South and South) and
subregional (Rim South and Deep South) contexts in American politics. We then perform multivariate analyses of the
likelihood of electing black legislators across three periods following the marked increase in the creation of majority-
minority districts (1993–1995, 2003–2005, 2013–2015). Because of sectional variation in the partisan strength of the
major parties, the probability of achieving black representation is significantly different depending upon whether a
contest occurs in the Non-South, Rim South, or Deep South, with the latter constituting of the highest threshold of
black population necessary to elect an African-American. By merging an original dataset on state legislative elections
with the most complete evaluation of the factors shaping the election of black lawmakers, our findings shed new light
on minority representation and how sectional differences greatly affect the electoral success of African-Americans.
majority-minority districts, black representation, state legislative elections, Deep South, Rim South
Hicks et al. 409
as Republicans have been the primary beneficiaries of the
increase in black representation. In many instances, pack-
ing minority voters into fewer districts has directly con-
tributed to Republican takeovers of congressional and
state legislative delegations (Hill 1995; Hood and McKee
2013), and particularly so in the South as compared with
the rest of the country (Black and Black 2002).
Furthermore, this partisan trade-off triggered by drawing
majority-minority districts also entails a trade-off between
descriptive versus substantive representation (Cameron,
Epstein, and O’Halloran 1996; Epstein and O’Halloran
2006). Although there is some disagreement with respect
to what substantive representation exactly encompasses
and how it should be measured (see Grose 2011), it is
hard to deny that white Democrats are more responsive to
minority interests than are Republicans (LeVeaux Sharpe
and Garand 2001, 2003; Overby and Cosgrove 1996).
Hence, the overall reduction in elected white Democrats
may result in the paradox of “less” representation of
black interests if majority-minority districts foster
Republican legislative majorities (Lublin 1997b).
We revisit the matter of majority-minority districts
and black representation because several features still
have not received their due. First, the extant literature is
dominated by congressional analyses. Yet, because of
the size of state legislative delegations and the election
of hundreds more black legislators, there is considerably
more analytic purchase when evaluating black represen-
tation in state legislative elections. Second, race has been
and continues to be the driving factor for the election of
black legislators (Grofman 2006; Lublin et al. 2009), but
it is not the only factor. With this in mind, most existing
scholarship fails to include many controls when assess-
ing the likelihood of electing a black lawmaker (Lublin
1997a and Lublin et al. 2009 are exceptions). With the
most comprehensive dataset on state legislative elec-
tions, we rectify concerns over underspecified models by
including numerous factors that potentially affect black
officeholding. Third, nearly all previous studies offer
only a static snapshot of black electoral success in a
given year, either immediately prior to or following a
decennial redistricting. In contrast, we look dynamically
at how the threshold for electing black state lawmakers
may fluctuate over time.
Finally, although much of the literature on black repre-
sentation makes the appropriate distinction between the
Non-South and South because of sectional variation in
black electoral success rates, few have taken the next step
of distinguishing between Rim South and Deep South
states (but see Black and Black 2002; Bullock and Gaddie
2009). As we will demonstrate, the Deep South subregion
drives the disparity in the probability of electing a black
legislator; in the heart of Dixie, where black populations
are the greatest, it is most difficult to achieve black
representation because these electorates are the most
racially polarized (Black and Black 2012; Grofman 2006;
Hood, Kidd, and Morris 2012; McKee and Springer
2015; Valentino and Sears 2005; White 2014).
Our study proceeds as follows. First, we document
changes in the partisan profiles of state legislators and
the share of black lawmakers from 1971 to 2016. Our
descriptive data stress that regional (Non-South and
South) and subregional (Rim South and Deep South)
changes to the partisan affiliations of state legislators is
the broader context in which the attainment of black rep-
resentation occurs. The most telling development in
black representation transpired with the Supreme Court’s
ruling in the 1986 North Carolina redistricting case,
Thornburg v. Gingles. In the wake of this decision, which
compelled North Carolina and other states, particularly
those in the South, to greatly expand their number of
majority-minority districts (Cunningham 2001), there
has been a marked increase in the share of black state
legislators. Our data analysis begins in earnest in this
post-Thornburg era of legislative politics. We offer pre-
liminary evidence of the relationship between the elec-
toral success of African-Americans and the black
population in their state legislative districts according to
where these lawmakers reside: Non-South versus South,
and Rim South versus Deep South. We then move beyond
these descriptive presentations to perform several multi-
variate analyses that model the likelihood of electing
black lawmakers across regions and subregions. We con-
clude by discussing the important political and represen-
tational implications of our findings.
Partisan Change and Black State
Legislators, 1971–2016
The basic delineation between the Non-South and South
reveals some palpable differences in the party affiliations
of state legislators from 1971 to 2016. Although some
scholars have further subdivided regions within the Non-
South (see Black and Black 2007), we adhere to the more
common Non-South/South bifurcation because variation
in the likelihood of achieving black representation is typi-
cally expected to be substantially different between these
two major regions, not within Non-South subregions.
However, because of greater racial polarization in voting
patterns between the Rim and Deep South subregions, we
do emphasize the significance of this division.2
In the figures that follow, the time-series run from
1971 to 2016. As is the case for all the data presented in
this section, we weight state legislative seats so that the
upper chamber is proportional to the lower chamber in
the computation of these partisan splits (see the online
appendix for further details). Combining state house and
state senate chambers, Figure 1a displays the partisan

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