Tennessee Redistricting May Run Afoul of the Voting Rights Act

In 1994 the Tennessee Republican Party won a big victory.

The Republicans elected a governor, Don Sundquist, two senators, Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, and took a 5-4 majority in the House delegation. But amidst all these victories the Democrats retained control of the state House of Representatives and would continue that control until 2008.

They were able to do that because in 1992 they redrew House districts and put 12 Republican House members in six districts, thus automatically removing six incumbent Republicans in the House. Had those six incumbents still been in office in 1994 the Republicans would have won control.

Imagine how the history of Tennessee would have changed over the following 14 years. Sundquist would have likely had a Republican majority during his tenure and he wouldn't have even attempted to enact a state income tax.

(In 2002 the attempt to pass the state income tax, which had to have Republican votes, led to a status quo redistricting, protecting incumbents rather than trying to increase the Democratic majority.)

But that's history. The Republicans are in control now and they are redrawing House district lines following the 2010 census and they are attempting to secure a filibuster proof majority. I don't recall a lot of outrage in 1992 about the redistricting. Most observers shrugged it off as the expected result of total Democratic control by a party being led by the master politician Gov. Ned McWherter.

It is likely the Republican plan this time around will face a great deal more scrutiny. Blogs and political websites mean a lot more people are paying attention to "inside baseball" these days than in the olden times of 1992. Redistricting Democrats also involves redrawing districts held by black legislators, bringing in to play the Voting Rights Act and the historical suspicion of Southern legislators discriminating against black voters and officeholders. The Justice Department will likely take a hard look at the plan and you can expect a court challenge.

The Republicans can argue that Memphis, which has lost population and thus House seats, is where this is occurring and since most of the delegation is black it is inevitable that black seats will be affected.

The plan is careful to protect the district of state Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville. Armstrong is well respected and liked by his colleagues. The plan protects his district by adding more Democrats. The Republicans do have the satisfaction of drawing a plan that also screws state Rep. Harry Tindell, the only other Democrat in the Knox delegation, by adding heavily Republican precincts with a plethora of well-funded potential candidates, primarily from Sequoyah Hills.

Tennessee has always been conservative and it has been trending Republican. Given the in-state vote in 2008 against the Democrats with a ticket led by President Barack Obama, it will be an uphill battle for Democrats this time around as he seeks re-election. As conservative Democrats from rural areas retire, they have been replaced by Republicans. The Republicans could use a neutral computer model and likely draw districts that would result in their retaining control. But they didn't. The question now is whether they have gone too far in trying to get a super majority and open themselves up to a court challenge and a judge intervening in the process.

Have they been too clever? We'll see.

Tindell has been an excellent legislator. He is well liked by Republicans and Democrats. During the coalition House structure led by independent Republican Speaker Kent Williams, Tindell remained chair of the powerful budget subcommittee and he played straight with his colleagues and did an outstanding job. He will be missed in the House if he chooses not to run or if he is defeated in his new Republican district.

But on the bright side, for him personally, there has rarely been a former legislator more talented and in position to become a hugely successful lobbyist. If he chooses to do it, he can write his own ticket with one of the large firms in Nashville or go out on his own.

But his leaving public service would be a loss for all of us.