Louisiana Legislature starts working on new political maps

Louisiana State Capitol
Photo by Julie O'Donoghue

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

The Louisiana Legislature opened its special session on political redistricting Tuesday with 22 proposals for reworking boundaries for the state’s seats in Congress, the state Senate, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission and on the state Supreme Court. More proposals are in the works for the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Dozens of advocates for increased minority representation showed up at the Capitol to watch lawmakers’ opening remarks and to scrutinize plans that have been released. Civil rights organizations are pushing for more majority-Black districts in Congress and across state government.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has threatened a lawsuit if lawmakers don’t add a second majority-Black seat for Louisiana in the U.S. House. Black residents make up one-third of Louisiana’s population, but the state only has one majority-Black U.S. House district, held by Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, out of six.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has also said it intends to sue if lawmakers don’t increase the number of majority-Black seats in the Louisiana Senate and House. When the Senate drew its map 10 years ago, 11 of the 39 districts and 28 out of 105 House districts were majority-Black, though white members currently hold some of those seats.

The Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t have much incentive to increase majority-Black districts because they would likely cut into their stronghold. In Congress, adding a second majority-Black district would likely force out a Republican incumbent.

In the Legislature, Republicans enjoy a two-thirds majority in the Senate and nearly a two-thirds majority in the House. Increasing majority-minority districts would likely impact their ability to control the statehouse agenda.

Still, the Republican leadership is sensitive to the lawsuit threats. A federal court recently struck down Alabama’s congressional map for including just one majority-Black district out of seven U.S. House seats. 

If a court were to throw out political maps in Louisiana, legislators could lose complete control of the process. A judge, who would have no sensitivity to the desire of sitting incumbents, could end up in charge of the redistricting process instead. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards could also veto political maps, which would likely also land them in court. The governor, a Democrat, has said he’s open to maps that create additional majority-Black districts in Congress and on the state school board, though he’s stopped short of saying he will veto maps that don’t meet that threshold. 

Incumbents, particularly in the House and Senate, also have an enormous influence over the maps. Lawmakers often prioritize protecting themselves when they draw legislative districts. 

Congressional districts

Lawmakers have filed 10 maps to rework the lines for Louisiana’s six U.S. House seats.

Republicans in leadership – Senate President Page Cortez, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Sen. Sharon Hewitt – submitted maps that retain just one majority-Black district. Democrats, who submitted the other seven bills, have included two majority-Black districts in their proposals. 

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund drew all the alternative maps that Democrats have filed, and civil rights organizations have been promoting those proposals for weeks. 

The Republican leadership maps were mostly kept under wraps until Monday and Tuesday. They largely maintain the status quo across the board, though some lines had to be adjusted for population shifts. 

In Schexnayder’s proposal, for example, the 5th Congressional District, held by Rep. Julia Letlow, shifts farther south toward the Northshore and gives up much of Alexandria. The 4th District, represented by Mike Johnson, picks up more of central Louisiana. 

But even as the lines move, the Republican leadership proposals largely maintain the same demographic breakdown in each of the U.S. House districts. None see drastic shifts in their white or Black populations.

Schexnayder said he kept the demographic makeup of the U.S. House seats largely the same in his map on purpose. The U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the current U.S. House map with a similar breakdown, meaning his proposal should hold up to legal scrutiny.

Democrats also appear to have an eye toward potential lawsuits. If the Legislature votes down several proposals that create two majority-Black districts than those with just one, it could strengthen any legal challenge to the map that eventually passed.

Louisiana Senate

Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Sen. Ed. Price, D-Gonzales, have filed Senate redistricting proposals. The Senate President’s map is the one mostly to move forward.

Cortez attempted to reach a consensus with as many of the 39 senators as possible ahead of the map going public, several lawmakers said. Still, legislators expect members from northwest Louisiana to vote against the proposal.

As expected, Cortez has moved one Senate district in the Shreveport area, currently held by Republican Sen. Barrow Peacock, to the Northshore. Shreveport has seen a dramatic drop in its population, particularly among white residents. Peacock is in his third term as a state senator and can’t run for reelection. Transferring his district south gives other senators in the region, who can run for more terms, a chance to stay in office.

Cortez’s initial proposal retains the same number of majority-Black districts as were drawn in 2011. Eleven senators, all Democrats, hold those seats. They make up 28% of the Senate.

The Senate proposal from Cortez does reflect some majority population shifts, however. District 5, held by New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, is no longer majority-Black because of demographic changes over the last decade. Cortez’s proposal moves the lines to get the Black population in the district back over 50%.

District 8, represented by Republican Patrick Connick, is also not majority white in its current configuration. Cortez’s map adjusts boundaries to increase its white population above 50%. 

Louisiana House

No proposals for reworking the Louisiana House’s 105 seats have been filed as representatives haven’t reached a consensus on a map yet.

Any map released is expected to include at least one seat  moving from north Louisiana to New Orleans. North Louisiana could also lose a second seat, though it’s not clear yet where it would go.

The House map is by far the most complicated. It includes more than twice as many districts as any other map. There are also fewer term-limited members in the House, meaning there are fewer options for carving up districts without hurting someone who will likely run for re-election.

BESE

BESE comprises eight districts with elected representatives and three appointed members. For the purpose of redistricting, the Legislature will focus on the elected seats.

Cortez and Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, have each filed BESE maps. Fields’ proposal includes a third majority-Black district. Cortez’s bill retains the two majority-Black districts that currently exist.

Fields’ third majority-Black district would be located in north Louisiana, where two majority-white districts currently exist. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund drew the map Fields submitted.

Public Service Commission

Three Public Service Commission maps – two from Republicans and one from a Democrat – have been filed. All of the districts include one majority-Black seat among the five districts.

Louisiana Supreme Court 

Fields and Hewitt have filed three Supreme Court maps between the two of them.

Hewitt’s proposal addresses significant population disparities between the seven court districts that haven’t been adjusted since the 1990s. Some justices represent hundreds of thousands of more people than others. 

Hewitt’s legislation attempts to balance the populations, though some districts would still be 60,000 residents larger than others under her plan. Hewitt’s districts also retain the same racial makeup of the court, with one majority-Black district and six majority-white seats.

Fields’ proposals would add a second majority-Black district to the seven-member court. One his maps would also even out the population of the districts, such that they would only be separated by a few thousands people.

Unlike the other political lines, the Supreme Court could remain untouched during redistricting. The Legislature is not legally required to adjust court district boundaries, which is why they haven’t been moved in decades.

Additional reporting by JC Canicosa, Wes Muller and Greg LaRose