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The redistricting battle is underway in Louisiana — with civil rights groups watching closely

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Lawmakers gather on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives. June 30, 2020.

As lawmakers in Louisiana gather to redraw the state’s electoral districts, one question looms above all else: In a state where one in three voters is Black, is it fair that only one of the six congressional seats represents a majority-minority district?

With civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund closely watching the proposed (link) redistricting of Louisiana’s electoral districts, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have staked out vastly different positions on achieving adequate minority representation in the state.

When lawmakers gaveled in the 2022 redistricting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, lawmakers had filed eight different proposed congressional maps — seven from Senate Democrats that would create two majority-Black congressional districts and two from Republican legislative leaders that would largely maintain the status quo.

The proposals display a wide gulf between the GOP and Democratic lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards at the outset of the three-week redistricting session. It remains unclear whether the two sides will work to bridge that gap or dig in and prepare to settle the matter in court.

Democrats and civil rights organizations contend that creating a second majority-Black congressional district is the only way that Louisiana — a state with a 33% Black population and six congressional districts — can comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision of federal law prohibits states from drawing election maps that dilute or weaken the political power of communities of color.

Last week, a federal court in Alabama ruled that that state’s newly drawn congressional map failed to comply with Section 2 because it packed a large number of Black voters into a single district

The GOP in Louisiana, which controls both chambers of the state legislature by wide margins, has been less forthcoming about its goals for the session, but some members of the party have indicated that they would like to preserve the two congressional districts in rural north Louisiana that are considered safe Republican seats.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales), Senate President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) and Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, each filed congressional maps that would largely maintain the status quo, packing a large number of Black voters from the greater New Orleans area, the River Parishes and north Baton Rouge into the 2nd Congressional District.

A group of Democratic state senators filed a series of proposed congressional maps that include two majority-minority districts. And while none of the proposals presented by the Senate Democrats are likely to pass the overwhelmingly Republican legislature, each demonstrates that it is possible to draw the congressional maps to better represent the state’s one-third Black population — a point that may be significant if the maps eventually end up in court.

Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge) has filed three proposals that include two districts where Black voters would have a slim majority.

Each of Fields’ maps proposes signficantly different geographic boundaries for the state’s congressional districts, but all three propose shifting voters in majority-Black north Baton Rouge from the state’s 2nd congressional district, currently represented by Democrat Troy Carter, to Republican Julia Letlow’s 5th congressional district.

Sen. Jay Luneau’s (D-Alexandria) proposal would create a second majority-Black district by having the 5th congressional district hug the state’s northeastern and northern border from East Feliciana to Caddo Parish, encompassing the Black populations in Shreveport and Monroe.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) proposes pushing the boundary of the 5th District into northern East Baton Rouge Parish and west into Rapides Parish to include Black neighborhoods in Alexandria.

Sen. Gerald Boudreaux’s (D-Lafayette) would move portions of East Baton Rouge Parish, Lafayette Parish and Rapides Parish into the 5th District to create a new Black-majority. And Sen. Joseph Bouie (D-New Orleans) submitted a proposal that would have the 5th District slash across the state from northern East Baton Rouge Parish through central Louisiana to Shreveport, encompassing Black neighborhoods in Lafayette and Alexandria along the way.

All seven proposals would almost certainly result in Letlow, a first-term Republican and the only female member of the state’s congressional delegation, losing her seat in Congress to a Democrat. The GOP is unlikely to relinquish a safeRepublican congressional seat without a fight.

Louisiana lawmakers are also required to redraw the state legislature’s House and Senate districts, along with districts for the state’s top school board and Public Service Commission.

So far, only two state legislative maps have been submitted. Cortez, a Republican, and Sen. Ed Price (D-Gonzales) each filed a proposed map for the state Senate. Cortez’s proposal has prompted concern from civil rights groups who say the plan does little to increase minority representation.

The proposal would only create one additional majority-Black district in the state senate — District 5 in New Orleans. While the district lacks a Black majority, it is currently represented by Karen Cater Peterson, who is Black.

Raising concerns from representatives of civil rights groups, like Chris Kaiser, advocacy director for the ACLU of Louisiana. The ACLU of Louisiana has argued that the legislature would need to make “significant increases” in minority opportunity districts to ensure compliance with the voting rights act. Currently, only a quarter of the state’s 144 House and Senate districts are represented by Black lawmakers.

“Senate Bill 1 by President Page Cortez just doesn’t seem to do that at this point, and so we have serious concerns about its compliance with the Voting Rights Act,” Kaiser said.

The organization has submitted proposals that would add four minority opportunity seats in the Senate and nine in the House of Representatives.

SB17 by Sen. Price would add three minority opportunity districts to the state Senate map, including Peterson’s District 5 in New Orleans and District 37 in Shreveport and District 17 in Baton Rouge. Kaiser characterized that proposal as a step in the right direction that would likely fulfill the state’s obligations under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Fields submitted two proposed maps for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) that would create a third majority-Black district, while Cortez has submitted a proposal that will maintain the racial makeup of the districts.

House and Senate leaders have proposed whirlwind schedules that could have lawmakers vote on finalized maps as soon as Saturday.

House leadership has pulled back a bit from that breakneck pace. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet to handle administrative duties Wednesday, but will not consider any redistricting legislation. No proposal

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet on Wednesday morning to discuss the Senate district maps proposed by Cortez and Price.

In the interest in maintaining transparency, the House and Senate will require that any proposed amendments to existing legislation be submitted a day in advance to give legislative staff, other lawmakers and members of the public time to analyze the proposed changes.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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