Report raises concerns about redistricting abuses in Louisiana

la_congressional_districts.gifBy Naomi Martin, The Lens

Louisiana politicians could use their control over the upcoming congressional redistricting process to keep themselves -- and their parties -- in power for the next decade, according to a new report by the Public Affairs Research Council, an independent non-profit based in Baton Rouge.

In the study, PAR repeats its 2009 recommendation that lawmakers establish an independent commission charged with redrawing district boundaries, rather than do it themselves. That avoids the "potential for conflicts of interest and political manipulation," the study says. With the 2010 redistricting process already under way, the report urges citizen vigilance over the ongoing process but acknowledges that genuine reform must wait until the next redistricting, in 2020.

"An independent redistricting commission or some form of more objective decision-making would better serve the broader interests of the public and improve the state's image as a place where serious political reforms have replaced ... cronyism and self-dealing," PAR says in the 21-page study titled "Louisiana Redistricting: A Progress Report."

Using key voter data such as past voting patterns and party affiliations, incumbent politicians can use Louisiana's geographical variety and spotty community distribution as an excuse to create snaking, awkwardly-shaped districts -- gerrymanders, by another name -- that maximize one party's chances of victory.

"If politicians choose their voters, instead of the other way around, the public is not well served," PAR says.

The redrawn boundaries will affect the districts electing the U.S. House of Representatives, five courts of appeal, the state Supreme Court, the Public Service Commission, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Based on 2010 Census data, Louisiana stands to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, trimming the Louisiana delegation to six. While five of Louisiana's current congressional districts tend to vote Republican, the 2nd and 3rd districts have proved competitive in recent years.

This is likely to change if the Republican-controlled House redraws the districts to compress Democratic constituencies into a single district around New Orleans.

"They'll probably sacrifice the New Orleans district as Democrat, but make sure the rest of them are Republican," says Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University.

The federal government may intervene, however, if the remapping appears to suppress African-American representation.

Louisiana is one of eight states that, under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, must prove to the U.S. Justice Department that new redistricting plans do not discriminate against racial minorities.

"Placing large numbers of African-Americans into their own districts could help ensure that an African-American politician could be elected, but it also could reduce the number of minority seats in the Legislature and dilute the impact of African-American voters in majority-white districts," the PAR report says. "With African-Americans accounting for almost a third of Louisiana's population, an argument could be made that the state should have two minority congressional districts instead of one."

But as there is no official definition for a "minority district," the law is subject to interpretation by lawmakers.

"The public should watch this trend during the redistricting process to monitor whether the new state maps will create starker political polarization and less competitive elections in Louisiana," the study says.

So far, PAR says, politicians have been discussing and planning their remapping privately. A series of public meetings around the state to hear voters' opinions on the matter included one on Thursday at Dillard University.

The proposed maps will be voted on as bills during a special legislative session from March 20 through April 13.