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Will Gov. Edwards veto GOP redistricting proposals? Here's what you need to know.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-Louisiana).
Paul Braun / WRKF
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-Louisiana).

After weeks of debate, Republican state lawmakers ended Louisiana’s redistricting session by pushing through new congressional and state legislative maps that did not increase minority representation, despite Democrats’ and civil rights groups' claims that failing to do so could violate federal law.

Now the attention turns to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has the power to veto those maps, sending them back to the negotiation table, or more likely, the courts. Just hours after the session ended, Democratic state lawmakers and civil rights groups issued a flurry of statements calling on Edwards to veto the maps.

Edwards has said he will “carefully examine” the maps before making a decision.

“I remain adamant that the maps should reflect the growth of the African American population in our state over the last 10 years, allowing for minority groups to have an opportunity at electing candidates of their own choosing, and I do have concerns that several of the maps do not fulfill that moral and legal requirement,” Edwards said in a statement last week.

But in a state where Republicans control a supermajority in the Senate and a near-super majority in the House, Edwards will also be surveying the political landscape as well, in hopes of avoiding a veto override.

Regardless of Edwards’ decision, civil rights groups said they intend to sue.

“I really don’t think he wants to be on the wrong side of history here,” said Jared Evans, senior policy counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the groups likely to lead a legal challenge to the state’s maps. “The lawsuit can be either NAACP vs. Edwards or NAACP vs. [House Speaker Clay] Schexnayder. Which does he want?”

Edwards has 20 days to sign, veto or let the maps become law without his signature.

How might a veto — or even veto override — play out in Louisiana this redistricting cycle? Baton Rouge Public Radio covered legislature sessions and spoke with redistricting experts on what could come next.

What is Edwards saying?

Edwards has expressed his disapproval of the Republican-dominated legislature’s approach to redistricting and his desire for new congressional and state legislative districts that increased minority representation, specifically by creating a second majority-Black congressional district in the state to more equitably represent the state’s 33% Black population.

“We can all do math,” Edwards said. “One-third of six is two. Can two be drawn? The answer is yes, in any number of ways.”

But Edwards has been hesitant to say whether or not he would veto bills that failed to do so.

Throughout his two terms, Edwards has consistently declined to give reporters or the public early indication that he would veto a bill — with one notable exception.

Edwards broke that pattern during last year’s regular legislative session and signaled that he would veto two bills lawmakers were considering: a proposed ban of transgender athletes from participating in girls’ school sports and a bill that would allow anyone to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

Lawmakers passed those bills in defiance of the governor and called the state’s first-ever veto override session to attempt to force them into law. Edwards’ early announcement of the veto gave Republican legislative leaders months to marshall support for the unprecedented session.

On their first trip through the legislature, both bills had cleared the House and Senate on comfortable, veto-proof votes. Even a handful of Democrats voted with the state legislature’s Republican majority.

But Edwards was able to rally every Democratic state lawmaker — excluding Rep. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi) — the state’s three independent House members and one Republican and was able to sustain the veto.

Edwards’ ability to fend off this override effort was seen as confirmation that his veto pen would be a viable tool during redistricting. But seven months later, Edwards is on more uncertain political footing.

How likely is a veto override?

Veto overrides are rare in Louisiana, where governors have traditionally wielded more power than their peers in other states. The state’s legislature has succeeded in overriding a gubernatorial veto only twice: in 1993 and 1991.

But last summer’s historic veto override session ushered in a new era of legislative independence in Louisiana. After the vote failed, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) said he expected veto sessions and override votes to become just another part of the legislative process.

Edwards is unlikely to have the support of at least two of the independent lawmakers and the one Republican he relied on in last year’s veto session. Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna), Rep. Malinda White (I-Bogalusa) and Rep. Joseph Stagni (R-Metairie) all voted in favor of the GOP’s maps.

And universal support among Democrats is far from a guarantee. Rep. Francis Thompson (D-Delhi), the longest-serving member of the legislature and a strong supporter of U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow (R-Start), voted to approve the GOP congressional map.

Rep. Travis Johnson (D-Vidalia), vice-chair of the state Democratic party and resident of the 5th District, voted with the GOP on an earlier version of the map. He also voted against the proposal Friday, but his adamant defense of his earlier vote left some in the party concerned that he may not vote to sustain Edwards’ veto.

But Edwards may have unexpected allies in his effort to sustain his veto. Three Republican House members — Rep. Beryl Amedee (R-Gray), Rep. Gabe Firment (R-Pollock) and Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath) — voted against each of the identical congressional maps proposed by GOP legislative leaders because they objected to the parishes they represent being split by district lines.

Firment, who represents Grant Parish, said legislative leaders did not bother to consult him when they decided to split his home parish between the 5th and 4th congressional districts in a last-minute set of amendments.

"I just feel like this was done in the dark of night," Firment said shortly before the vote. "It stinks to high heaven if you ask me."

After the vote, Firment told The Advocate that he would “seriously consider” voting to sustain Edwards veto if the legislature attempted to override.

What role do gubernatorial vetoes play in redistricting?

Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said gubernatorial vetoes can send redistricting proposals back to the legislature, where both parties can negotiate a compromise.

That seems unlikely in Louisiana, given the minimal role Edwards played in this month’s redistricting session and the general frostiness between his administration and the state’s Republican legislative leaders. That means the dispute will likely end up in the courts, Li said.

“And we know from a lot of experience that courts tend to do a better job of drawing maps than partisan legislatures,"

During this redistricting cycle, governors across the nation have had varying degrees of success in vetoing controversial maps.

Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, both Democrats, vetoed congressional maps passed by their states’ overwhelmingly Republican legislatures and were quickly overridden.

But in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf fared better. The Republican legislature lacked the majority needed to override Wolf’s veto, and the map-drawing responsibilities were passed to the state Supreme Court.

In states where redistricting disagreements are based purely on partisan power struggles, gubernatorial vetoes are the clearest path to an intervention by state courts.

But in Louisiana, claims of racial gerrymandering and violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act all but guarantee that the case would end up in federal court. A veto from Edwards would not have as much effect on such a challenge, but would clearly demonstrate that the GOP-backed maps did not have support from both the legislative and executive branches.

Li added that one of the main benefits of a gubernatorial veto is that it forces a state court to resolve the redistricting dispute before the next major election — likely much sooner than the federal courts would issue a final decision.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the most consequential federal redistricting case of this cycle — a challenge to Alabama’s congressional map that gave the 27%-Black state only one majority-Black district out of seven. The high court overruled a lower court and reinstated the GOP-backed map for the 2022 election cycle.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case late next fall.

“The fact that you end up in court doesn’t necessarily mean that you get what you want, because, particularly around the Voting Rights Act, these issues are complicated,” L“It is just the first step in a large process, but if you’re trying to avoid a Republican gerrymander, or a Democratic gerrymander, having a governor of the opposite party veto a map is a big step.”
Copyright 2022 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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