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PAR sees positives, negatives and opportunity from the 2011 redistricting session

The Louisiana Legislature adjourned Wednesday from a special session on redistricting Lawmakers completed four of the seven political maps they set out to redraw when they called themselves into session March 20. We wait to see if the federal Department of Justice will approve the new plans or if court challenges will alter the outcomes.

In the meantime, as weary as many may be of redistricting, now is the time to examine the lessons learned during the special session, to identify what went right and what went wrong, and to consider ways to improve the process.

The Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) believes there is a better way to remap voting districts than the current system in which state lawmakers draw their own political district lines using the regular legislative process. Although lawmakers were charged with redistricting other elected bodies, many of them demonstrated an inclination to delegate their redistricting authority to the incumbents in those bodies. The current system erodes public confidence in the redistricting process.

The state should adopt an alternative method of redistricting or else establish a broad-based commission to examine the issue with the goal of making formal recommendations for change.

Public input

Several positive developments during the session should be noted. Public participation and input were invited and accommodated. The last time the Legislature redrew the state’s political maps was in the fall of 2001, when the public mostly ignored the process in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A much stronger public interest in the 2011 redistricting was heightened by the high-stakes loss of a Louisiana congressional seat and the post-Katrina population shifts. The redistricting committees held regional hearings, recorded many hours of public testimony, and collected scores of opinions and documents from elected officials, organizations and citizens throughout the state. In several areas, civic and business groups mobilized on regional or political fronts to express their views.

Though often cited in self-serving ways, this citizen input became a regular part of the committee and floor discussions during the session, and the debate was richer for it.

Also on a positive note, the House Speaker and Senate President released redistricting proposals for their legislative bodies before the session began, offering a head start on the proceedings. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee even held a hearing on the Speaker’s plan and some of the congressional plans ahead of the session.

During the hearings many lawmakers took the time to explain their voting preferences, forming a useful public record and contributing to an important record of intent. Many of the committee discussions were in-depth and devoted time fairly to a variety of points of view. A troubling exception to this practice occurred early in the session when the chairman of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee rebuked a fellow member for sponsoring a bill that competed against his own. This reflected poorly on the institution and gave the appearance that a back-room deal was in place.

As amendments were proposed to redistricting bills, usually each plan was accompanied by a statewide map and demographic charts detailing the changes. This was an exceptionally good practice providing welcome clarity throughout most of the session. On some occasions, and in particular for a critical amendment to a congressional remapping bill on the Senate floor on the last day, the amendment data were unfortunately incomplete. But by and large the Legislature made admirable steps toward better transparency in this area.

The Congress controversy

The job of redistricting Louisiana’s congressional delegation from seven to six seats was the most controversial component of the session. The reduced number of seats predetermined that someone, and maybe a lot of someones, would be unhappy and critical. The disagreements and temporary impasse that occurred should not be seen as a sign of failure of the process. In fact, those disruptions arose because some lawmakers attempted to advance plans that differed from what most of the incumbent congressional delegation wanted.

What was more instructive to observe was the prevailing influence of the incumbent congressmen, the governor and party politics. The design of districts in the north shaped the congressional debate. The incumbent congressional members in the north wanted a plan that kept Shreveport and Monroe separate with a vertical split. They were backed by the governor and the Louisiana Republican Party chairman, among others. This plan offered slight but perhaps significant advantages to Republicans in particular because of the size of the white majority in the new western District 4 based on Shreveport.

Competing plans called for a horizontal District 4 stripped along Interstate 20. Their demographics indicated an increased possibility of electing a Democrat. African Americans would have had 36 percent to 40 percent of the voter presence in some of those competing plans versus about 31 percent to 35 percent in the Republican-backed versions. In the plan passed this week, blacks make up 32.6 percent of registered voters in the new District 4.

The governor said he wanted a plan that reflected the current east-west split of the northern congressional districts and that he would veto a competing plan with a northern strip. Some lawmakers and critics complained about the governor’s influence. It should be noted that gubernatorial intervention and veto power are embedded in the regular legislative process. If redistricting is conducted according to that regular process, then a governor’s involvement should be expected. The governor had declared his preference on the matter well before the session. On the other hand, the governor sent mixed signals by also implying he would stay out of the process. That was the message at the beginning of the session during his House chamber address, when he missed a chance to justify and clarify his strong viewpoint about the congressional lines in the north. Had he done that, he would have delivered an assertive message that he was willing to get involved and might have avoided the appearance that he was trying to have it both ways.

When the debate on the congressional maps reached a deadlock between the House and Senate, five of the state’s seven congressmen and the governor requested a year’s delay in the discussion. That approach threatened to turn the unfinished redistricting business into an undesirable election issue for legislators this fall. The Senate cobbled together a revised version of the governor-approved bill, and it passed in the final hours of the session.

Among the issues that emerged from this process is a concern that the final congressional remapping bill was rushed to judgment. Also, while state lawmakers agreed about the need for preserving a congressional district with a strong majority of African Americans, there was overwhelming opposition to creating a second such district and there was strong resistance to creating a district in which African-Americans would have a near majority. Whether the Department of Justice and the courts will weigh in on those issues remains to be seen. The Justice Department has offered new guidance on minority districts since 2001 and the agency’s evaluation of redistricting plans is hard to predict. Another unknown is whether the current Democratic administration in Washington will take a new approach to redistricting. For the first time since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a Democratic administration is in power during a decennial redistricting year

Federal oversight

Some of the problems in the current system go well beyond the state legislature. As the session debates indicated, legislators were operating with too much room for doubt about how the Justice Department would interpret their maps and motives with regard to minority voting rights. On top of that, there were serious disagreements about interpretations of the Voting Rights Act and whether federal court decisions appeared to contradict Justice Department guidance.

It would be too easy to dismiss these concerns as a symptom of a Legislature unable or unwilling to apply itself to the task of abiding by federal oversight. The more difficult and pressing question is whether the current combination of federal laws, guidelines and case history intended to protect minority voting rights may have created an environment for redistricting that is unnecessarily unclear and possibly counterproductive. If the Legislature’s plans are rejected, this sensitive topic would be well worth a renewed discussion.

Unfinished business

Lawmakers completed new plans for Congress, the state House and Senate and the Public Service Commission. It failed to complete a plan for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education but has the opportunity to finish that work in the upcoming regular session.

The Legislature included the Louisiana Supreme Court in its call for the redistricting session but chose not to redraw the court’s seven districts. The Supreme Court did not have lines redrawn following the 2000 Census. The ideal balance of population size for Supreme Court districts is 647,624 citizens. Currently, the deviations in Supreme Court districts are way out of balance. They range from 32 percent below the ideal population in District 7 covering New Orleans to 22 percent over the ideal population in District 5 covering the Baton Rouge area.

Legislative leaders said the Supreme Court did not wish to have lines redrawn at this time, with no justification given. A Supreme Court statement to PAR said simply, “It was the collective preference of the justices to leave the districts as they are.”

Leaving the lines as they are currently drawn is not recommended for at least two reasons. First, Louisiana will apparently continue with substantially mal-apportioned Supreme Court districts for another 10 years. Louisiana is among 22 states that elect their Supreme Court justices. The judicial branch has not been held to the same legal standard of “one man, one vote” that applies to legislators and members of Congress. Although states are not required to elect judges, where they are elected they are representatives of communities. Both the Legislature and Supreme Court’s apparent lack of concern about the 50 percent deviation in the smallest and largest districts of our elected justices is troubling. It raises questions of why we should elect rather than appoint justices in Louisiana. Supreme Court redistricting should be re-examined.

Secondly, the Legislature should not abdicate its responsibility for drawing districts to the wishes of the Supreme Court. It is likely that few political entities, given the choice, would choose to be redrawn. The Legislature should have fulfilled its obligation to draw apportioned districts.

PAR has commended the Legislature for including the Courts of Appeal in its plan for the session. The composition and workload of the Courts of Appeal has not been analyzed comprehensively in recent history. Given the substantial population shifts in Louisiana, it is likely that the jurisdictions for the courts are substantially mal-apportioned.

PAR recommended that the Courts of Appeal be redrawn to reflect new population figures, and if this was not feasible during the special session, to refrain from creating new judgeships until this necessary task is done. The Legislature is to be commended for not adding appeal court judgeships during the special session. PAR reiterates its recommendation that the Legislature not add judgeships during the upcoming regular session and that the overall workloads and composition of the Courts of Appeal be analyzed and adjusted.

Problems with the current system

A fundamental problem with the redistricting process is that lawmakers are selecting from a large menu of priorities when deciding how to draw the maps. Foremost they must design districts that are contiguous and balanced with near-equal populations. They also must try to meet standards for preclearance from the Department of Justice and draw lines in compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. They might also strive to make the districts geographically compact, electorally competitive and inclusive for so-called communities of common interest. The definitions of these concepts are greatly malleable, adding complexity and opportunities for deliberate distortions during the debates.

Another ambiguous priority is whether a particular city, parish or region should be served by a single elected representative or segmented by multiple districts. Several communities spoke up before and during the session about whether they wanted single or multiple representatives and lawmakers often echoed those views. What’s better, cohesive representation or multiple politicians for greater clout? The answer to that question can be subjective and genuinely difficult to determine. But during the session the answer frequently seemed to be whatever was to the advantage of a particular politician rather than to a particular community. We hope the process in the future will solicit more clear expressions of local community preferences on this issue.

Among the various priorities in the map designs, incumbent protection was the primary focus. The legislators’ surprisingly unabashed arguments, observations, admissions and accusations on this theme provided plenty of evidence of this fact. This practice was expected, since state lawmakers draw their own lines. When drawing new lines for other elected bodies, they tended to defer to the wishes of incumbents in those seats. As a whole, the federal system of oversight and case law provides little if any deterrent for this practice of incumbent protection. The initiative to correct the incumbent-led process must come from the state. The emphasis for drawing districts should be on the best interests of communities and voters rather than on incumbent protection.

A new way

This is one of the reasons PAR recommends the state adopt new redistricting methods, to reduce the significance of incumbent and party protection as a top priority. A range of changes in the process and structure could be considered, including the creation of a wholly independent commission or some infusion of non-legislative players into the redistricting process.

The representative form of government is an often frustrating but still marvelous invention, and our legislators are entitled to the many responsibilities they are given. But the current redistricting process removes them from a position of representing communities and people to a position of representing mainly themselves. The process needs to be replaced or at least given more independent voices for input.

An initiative to create an alternative redistricting system would face tall obstacles. The ascendency of a new political party dominance in Louisiana could weigh against it, because the current system could be viewed as the best way to retain a growing party power. Also, the Black Caucus could resist a new system if its members believe it would put them at a disadvantage. Some advocates of minority voting rights have taken a position of skepticism about redistricting commissions elsewhere.

The idea of simply adopting another state’s model also could be problematic. What works in Iowa or California likely would not fit Louisiana. The state should mold its own system and the work toward that goal should begin now.

Based on the valuable lessons from the recent session and the growing body of experience with alternative systems around the country, Louisiana has an opportunity to create its own model and to make a positive statement about its political image. If the state is not prepared to move immediately and boldly into a new system, it should at a minimum create a broad-based, high-profile commission charged with recommending options for the future direction of Louisiana’s redistricting process. The public is owed this conversation. This step could lead Louisiana to a better system and improve public confidence in the process.

 

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