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After federal judge strikes down congressional redistricting map, what might happen before midterms?

The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.
Phoebe Jones
The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.

On Monday, a federal judge struck down Louisiana's congressional redistricting map, arguing that the lawmakers behind the map violated the Voting Rights Act by limiting representation of Louisiana's Black population. Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun, who has been covering redistricting, tells us more.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Adam Vos: The judge stated that the map violated the Voting Rights Act. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? What exactly did the ruling say?

Paul Braun: Yes. This will be familiar to most of our listeners, but you know Black Louisianans make up 31.2% of the state's voting age population — roughly a third of the state's voting population overall. But they've only ever had a chance of electing their candidate of choice in one of the state's six congressional districts.

And we've seen a lot of the Black voting population packed into the single congressional district that controls the second congressional district. So Judge Shelly Dick of the US District Court here in Baton Rouge issued a 152-page ruling on Monday that talked through all of the redistricting high points that we're familiar with and basically said that it was unfair and ordered the state's legislature to draw a new congressional map by June 20 that includes that second majority Black district that civil rights groups and Democrats in the state have been seeking for a very long time.

AV: Do you think they'll do that? 

PB: In a word, no. The state's legislature is controlled overwhelmingly by Republicans. Any redrawing of this map would likely lead to Republicans losing a safe Republican seat in Congress. So there's going to be a lot of opposition from the state's Republican-controlled legislature.

There's a lot of factors at play here. This is an argument that's been made under Section Two of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is very complicated. We've talked about how simple the math is on this. That's been the big soundbite and talking point throughout this redistricting process.

One-third of six is two, one-third of the state's population is Black. We've got six congressional districts. There should be two of these maps, but it's really a very complicated legal process. And there's three things that have to be outlined in these arguments, a three-part test.

The first is that this is a minority population. In this case, the Black population is large enough and compact enough to have a majority district. Second, there's a pattern of racially-polarized voting in the state, which we've clearly seen here. Black voters and white voters favor different candidates. The Black population is typically aligned with Democrats, white voters here in Louisiana are typically aligned with Republicans. And then third is that pattern of racially-polarized voting has led to majority voting groups voting in a block to defeat minority-preferred candidates, which has long been the case here in Louisiana, going back decades. And Judge Dick laid all that out in her ruling.

AV: So let's talk about timing. The midterm elections are this fall. We have to elect some representatives, and they'll have to be on the ballot. But this is a legal process, and legal things tend to drag out. Is there enough time to finalize a new map like the judge has ordered?

PB: Well, if everything goes as the judge ordered, maybe. She set up that deadline of June 20, which is, you know, a little less than two weeks from now. Gov. John Bel Edwards moved quickly — he applauded the decision from Judge Dick on Monday, and on Tuesday he called a special session that would start up one week from Wednesday ... and it would run for five days. And, you know, if all of the lawmakers are pulling together and moving quickly, there is technically enough time to get a new congressional map through the legislative process and approved by the House and the Senate. But that's a really big if, because as I mentioned, Republican state lawmakers do not want this new map.

And if they don't get it done by that June 20 deadline, Judge Dick's court would intervene and draw a new map. But because of rulings we've seen in similar redistricting cases around the country, there's very little hope to suggest that Judge Shelly Dick is gonna have the final word on this.

We've already seen the Republicans in the state take this up to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and there's really good precedent for that. Very recently in Alabama, for example, they have a very similar redistricting lawsuit that's making its way through the courts. And back in February, a district court — a three judge panel — said that their congressional map, which only created one majority Black district out of their seven districts in Alabama, was unfair and ordered the legislature to draw a new map.

Just like what we saw here in Louisiana. But that was very short-lived because the US Supreme Court got into it within days and said, “Hey, wait a minute. We want to take a look at this too, but there's not enough time for us to do so before qualifying and party primaries in Alabama.”

So they issued a 5-to-4 ruling from their shadow docket saying that they would take up the case later this year, but the map would remain in place for primaries in Congressional races this fall.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.
Adam is responsible for coordinating WRKF's programming and making sure everything you hear on the radio runs smoothly. He is also the voice of Baton Rouge's local news every afternoon during All Things Considered.
Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WWNO from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.

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