Get Out Your Red Crayons

It’s been nearly two years since I wrote to y’all, telling you I was done with observing and writing about the bullying that had become so constant at the state Capitol, but when the redistricting session began, I thought I’d pop in and have a look. After all, there have been several years now of concerted efforts to promote awareness and fairness in the process of redrawing the representational maps and I had hopes that might have led to lawmakers “enlightening up.”

Just over four years ago, a day-long conference – the Louisiana Redistricting Summit – was held at the Lod Cook Alumni Center at LSU. Hosted by the university’s Reilly Center and the non-profit group Fair Districts Louisiana (founded in 2017), the event was convened to bring together good government advocacy groups, politicians, the media and Louisiana’s citizenry to shine spotlights of both attention and scrutiny toward the reapportionment process which would be required after the 2020 census.

I was there, as many others in attendance voiced concerns about perceptions of “the foxes guarding the henhouse.” You see, Louisiana’s legislators draw all the various district lines: for congressional representation, for BESE representation, for the Public Service Commission, for the state Supreme Court, and – most worrisome – for their own districts. Suggestions were made to advocate for creating a separate and independent Redistricting Commission, with members from government watchdog groups, the public at large, and the legislature. In subsequent legislative sessions, bills were filed to try and make that a reality, but each was killed in committee.

In the past six months, there have been the “Redistricting Road Shows” – town hall type meetings conducted in Louisiana’s larger cities. The public comments received at these events generally echoed the opinions expressed by respondents to the redistricting poll done as a joint venture of the Louisiana ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Fair Districts Louisiana, and Louisiana Progress. That survey of 525 voters, conducted January 10th and 11th this year, asked the proportional and racially diverse samples of men and women, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents across the voting age spectrum what they knew and thought about redistricting. (Note: 56% of those polled said they had voted for Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020.)

More than half of all asked (53%) didn’t even know the once-a-decade reapportionment session was due to begin. Eighty percent of those surveyed felt it was important for the new maps to keep whole towns, cities, or parishes together in a single district, while 58% thought drawing districts to making incumbents’ re-election easier was unimportant. Instead, 78% thought making districts more competitive across party lines should be a priority.

Add to all this the fact that the 2020 Census results for Louisiana show that minority populations have increased, while white populations have declined. This means fairness would require drawing more districts with a majority of minority voters, while cutting back on the numbers of districts where white voters dominate.

And while Louisiana no longer has to seek pre-clearance for its proposed maps from the U.S. Department of Justice, due to the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, some present legal actions regarding redistricting maps drawn in other states should be serving as current caution signs for Louisiana’s lawmakers.

For example, North Carolina’s Supreme Court has rejected that state’s Republican-drawn congressional and General Assembly maps because they “deprive voters of substantially equal voting power on the basis of partisan affiliation.” Ohio’s Supremes said their state’s GOP-designed congressional maps violate an Ohio constitutional amendment that prohibits gerrymandering. In Alabama, a panel of federal judges sent lawmakers back to the drawing board, saying the legislatively designed and governor-approved mapsd violate the Voting Rights Act requirements by packing blacks in one district when population figures show two were warranted. Then on Monday, February 7, the U.S. Supreme Court put a stay on the do-over order.

Now that we’re one week into the reapportionment session, how’s all that working out?

We haven’t heard our lawmakers speaking out for status retention, or making any loud and proud public statements about the need to protect re-election chances for incumbents. (They may very well be saying those things to each other, in the Ellender Room in the capitol sub-basement.) I suspect quite strongly the lack of “save my seat” statements has less to do with the concerns of current state senators and state representatives for public perception, and much more to do with the realities of term limits. “Terming out” has led to turnover of as much as 43% of the total House members, and 41% of the senators in any of the quadrennial elections, since the restriction to three consecutive terms in one chamber or the other was enacted in 1995. For example, in 2007, 45 of the 105 House members and 15 of 39 senators were ineligible to run for re-election. In the most recent statewide elections of 2019, it was 16 of 39 senators, and 31 of the 105 representatives that were barred for running to save their seats.

In addition to the turnover of terming out, there has also been a surge in general churn, as noted by a rising number of special elections. A legislative special election is required if a lawmaker leaves his or her office (resigns, or dies, or is convicted of a felony) with more than 6 months left in the term. Over the past decade, 37 such special elections have been required, with the majority of those occurring in the past 5 years.

So no. Those charged with redrawing election district maps aren’t first-and-foremost prepping for personal longevity at a particular desk in one of the Capitol chambers.

They ARE, however, attempting to gerrymander.

Original use of the term “gerrymander.” Pic courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For those curious about that term, it is a verb, defined as “manipulating the boundaries of an electoral district with the intent of favoring one party, group or socioeconomic class.” Also, “it is always considered a corruption of the democratic process.”

The word was coined in the early 19th century, from the name of Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts + salamander. It was reflective of the supposed similarity between a salamander and the shape of a new voting district on a map drawn when Gerry was in office (1812), as the creation of that district was felt to favor his party.

Louisiana’s district map designers appear to be using both of the two main tactics of gerrymandering: “packing” and “cracking.”

While “packing” is generally described as “concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts,” it’s how we’ve gotten much-needed majority-minority districts in the past.(See our 2nd Congressional District on the current map, as an example.) Now Louisiana’s increases in minority populations mean the state should have two majority minority congressional districts, instead of the present one. Yet the Republican majorities in both the state House and state Senate do not thus far seem inclined to use any crayons other than the red ones when they draw the new congressional outlines.

Louisiana’s current (since 2011) U.S. Congressional Districts. Map courtesy Fair Districts Louisiana.

Senator Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), chairing the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee charged with vetting the new map proposals before a floor vote, has gone so far as to question whether a new majority-minority congressional district would “perform,” helping to underscore the GOP’s symbiotic relationship with white supremacy.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder. Screenshot by Sue Lincoln.

There’s also the bill redrawing House district lines, filed by (Republican) House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, appears to try and erase at least one voting block that, for the past decade, has been colored blue.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins issued a statement last Thursday, pointing out the problems with those proposed electoral maps:
“We want maps that fairly represent Louisiana, protecting communities of interest and avoiding gerrymandering. The census data shows that there should be an increase in minority representation at every level. The congressional maps that do not provide for a second majority-minority district are contrary to that census data.”

In addition, the caucus statement notes “The Speaker’s state House map cracks apart the minority population in District 23, currently represented by Kenny Cox, depriving African-Americans in that area of an opportunity for representation. Unlike the Speaker’s map, the Democrats’ state House maps account for the population loss in Northwest Louisiana without reducing minority representation.”

That brings up the other primary gerrymandering technique: “cracking,” which is defined as “diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts.”

It is what prompts people to say (and believe), “My vote doesn’t count.”

By drawing district boundaries to contain even a slim majority of the party in power’s voters, it ensures ballots cast by members of the other party (or no party) will have no effect on the final outcome. It is what Wayne Dawkins, a journalism professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and historian for the National Association of Black Journalists, describes as “politicians picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians.” Redistricting then becomes an exercise in guaranteeing political party power and dominance, rather than a method of ensuring representative government.

THAT is exceedingly problematic, for it is an utter violation of the oath of office each legislator utters. Their oath says, “I do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution and laws of the United States and the constitution and laws of this state and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me, according to the best of my ability and understanding, so help me God.”

Could you point me to which section of the United States Constitution refers to political parties? What part of Louisiana’s Constitution of 1974 (or any of its predecessors), or of its voter-approved constitutional amendments makes any authorization for or mention of political parties.

Political parties are unconstitutional.

Drawing voting district lines in accordance with party loyalty and to preserve party political power is absolutely unconstitutional.

May I offer you the words of stand-up comic Chris Titus to ponder?

“It’s not US and THEM the people. It’s WE the people,” he says. “Stay WE. Don’t let THEY distract you with the THEM.”

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.