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Protecting Their Territory

Should rural voters in certain districts have greater sway at the ballot box?

The decennial U.S. Census it two years away, which means reapportionment – the process of redrawing district lines for equivalent distribution of voters in accordance with population shifts – is three years off. The process, controlled by the state legislature, is getting some early attention, due in no small part to the attention the U.S. Supreme Court is currently giving to decisions made in 2011 by lawmakers in other states.

The cases – one from Wisconsin, heard in October; another from Maryland, heard last week; and a pair from Texas, to be heard sometime this month – all deal with alleged “gerrymandering”, or manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district to benefit a particular class. In the Wisconsin case, the beneficiaries were Republicans. In Maryland, they were Democrats. And the Texas cases were ruled by a lower court to be “racial gerrymanders”. SCOTUS is expected to rule on all these cases by the end of June.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court on the Wisconsin and Texas cases, while a grassroots group called Fair Districts Louisiana held a daylong seminar at LSU in January, discussing both the process and concerns in advance of the next round of reapportionment.

There was also lengthy discussion of a bill to try and change one part of Louisiana’s process on the state House floor last week.

Representative Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) authored HB 89, which would require the state to count prisoners at their “home of record”, rather than at the prison where they are housed.

“We allow members of the military to vote, using their ‘home of record’, even though their duty has them living on a base in another state or another country,” Smith said. “Counting prisoners – who are forbidden from voting – as residing at the prison, skews representation for districts where prisons are located.”

Here’s the math, and what she meant by “skews representation”. After the 2010 Census, the state’s 105 House districts were redrawn, allocating an average of 43,000 voting-age residents to each district. Meanwhile, Louisiana had – on average – 35,000 prisoners in state custody. 15,000 of them are in state facilities, while the other 20,000 are housed in local jails.

The most noticeable variance is the voting population reality of House District 18, which includes Angola State Penitentiary: 5100 inmates – all of voting age – but ineligible to vote. Next to House District 18 is House District 62, where the majority of Angola’s 1700 employees reside. District 62 also includes Dixon Correctional Institute, with 2500 inmates.

The first person up to speak against the bill was Rep. Kenny Havard (R-District 62).

“I rise in opposition,” Havard stated. “It’s going to affect everybody’s district. It will cause havoc. Please vote against this bill.”

Rep. Barbara Norton (D-Shreveport) had questions for Havard.

“Why do you oppose this bill, really?” she asked.

“It would have far-reaching implications,” he replied. “You should be counted as living where you lay your head at night.”

“Those people who are incarcerated can’t vote,” Norton responded. “You think they should be counted as part of the numbers that make up your district, if they can’t vote?”

“The only thing I’m sure of is I’m against this bill,” Havard answered.

Rep. Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette) had a question, too, attempting to assist Havard with his opposition.

“Will this have a big impact on rural representation?” she queried.

“It will have a big impact on all our districts,” he said. “When we redistrict, we’ll have to shift all these lines, and that will shift your population.”

Rep. Katrina Jackson got up to speak for the bill.

“It is unfair to draw a district based on a large number of people who can’t vote. No one should be defending keeping those people counted as part of their district,” she said. “You’re fighting to continue to have districts that totally misrepresent how many voters you have.”

Jackson noted that the majority of state prisoners are housed in local jails, and under this bill, they would be counted as residing where they lived before being remanded, so ultimately this would balance out.

But when it comes to including entire prison populations among the voter count for single districts, “It messes up that ‘one person, one vote’ rule,” Jackson remonstrated. “That’s discriminatory!”

“I don’t like you suggesting that this is improper,” Landry protested. “This would change how rural areas are represented!”

“The majority of my district is rural,” Jackson responded, “And it is improper to dilute districts with inmates.”

“I’m worried about representation in rural areas,” Landry insisted.

“These are non-voters, so how does that affect representation?” Jackson asked, with a Cheshire cat smile, knowing she had Landry nearly cornered.

“Larger prisons are in rural areas, so it affects rural representation,” Landry replied.

But before Rep. Jackson could draw that out to its logical conclusion – that including large chunks of population known to be ineligible to vote means more ballot box clout for that district’s residents who can vote – Rep. Steve Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a retired sheriff, moved to call the question.

The bill failed, 28-71.

The lone Republican to vote for the bill was Rep.Joseph Stagni, of Kenner. Democratic Rep. Major Thibaut of District 18 – the one that includes Angola – voted against the bill.

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