The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday approved Louisiana’s plan for redrawing the state Senate’s 39 districts to be used in the fall elections.
“We felt all along that the Senate plan we put together would meet the criteria set out by Justice and we would get approved,” said Senate President Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan.
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires Justice Department preclearance of the legislative redistricting plans, as well as other changes in state election laws, because of the state’s history of racial discrimination. The law requires federal review to assure that minority voting strength is not diluted in the redistricting process.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote that the attorney general does not object to Louisiana’s changes. He did, however, warn that the federal approval did not preclude a court challenge by others trying to block the new maps, which are slated to take effect with the Oct. 22 primary.
Election districts must be redrawn every 10 years to realign district lines with shifts in the state’s population from the most recent U.S. census. Election districts must be equal in population to one another.
The Justice Department had earlier approved the Louisiana House’s remap of its 105 election districts, thereby rejecting Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus complaints that the House plan did not maximize black voter strength.
There was no such formal complaint filed against the Senate plan.
The Baton Rouge area gets added political influence with a greater number of legislative districts because of population gains in the past decade in Ascension, Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes.
Chaisson said the Senate plan had minimal opposition and hopes that it will not be contested in court.
The state Senate plan increased the number of majority-black Senate districts from 10 to 11, Chaisson said.
Population losses after Hurricane Katrina led to the loss of a majority-black district in the Orleans area, Chaisson said. But the Senate plan made up for it by creating a new district in the River Parishes in which black residents outnumber whites. Another majority-black district was drawn in north-central Louisiana, he said.
“It’s a net gain of one,” Chaisson said.
State Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, said that since the plan added a majority-black district, the Justice Department decided there was no violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 involves whether a plan would worsen the position of minority voters.
But Jackson said: “The case could be made for a Section 2 case.” Section 2 bans political bodies from adopting redistricting plans that reduce minority voting strength. Jackson said some of the proposals considered created more Senate districts with a majority of black voters.
Asked whether she expects a court challenge to the Senate plan, Jackson said: “I expect it more likely to the House plan.”
The Legislative Black Caucus is conferring with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. on a possible court challenge of the Louisiana House plan because of its failure to create a 30th majority-black district in Caddo Parish, said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who chairs the Black Caucus.
Meanwhile, one term-limited Louisiana House member looking at a run for state Senate this fall expressed delight in the Justice decision.
“I’m very excited. I’ve already started campaigning in the district,” said state Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, who is running for the new majority-black Senate district in north Louisiana.