Huey Long statue

Gov. Huey P. Long's statue at his grave on the State Capitol grounds was one of the last commissions by famed New York sculptor Charles E. Keck.

ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO

A new grassroots movement is underway with the goal of changing the way Louisiana draws its congressional and legislative districts.

Fair Districts Louisiana will join LSU's Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs in hosting a bipartisan summit on Jan. 19 to discuss ideas for changing the redistricting process in Louisiana.

"There is a growing bipartisan consensus that gerrymandering is wrong," Stephen Kearny, one of the co-founders of Fair Districts Louisiana told the Press Club of Baton Rouge at its weekly luncheon on Monday. "It's possible for all of us to come together to address it."

Louisiana currently leaves the map redrawing process to state lawmakers. But there has been increasing concerns voiced over the role that partisan politics and incumbency play when lines are drawn.

Redistricting comes up every 10 years after the latest U.S. Census findings. The next round comes in 2021, but Kearny and others say that they would like to see the state Legislature begin considering changes to the process next year and in the 2020 session, with a goal of removing politics from it.

"There are vested interests in both sides and there has to be enough public outcry to counteract it," Kearny said.

Brian Marks, an LSU professor who teaches political geography, said he thinks the 2011 redistricting cycle, nationally, illustrated a politically problematic process. 

"This has become a tremendously partisan and contentious issue," said Marks, who also addressed the Press Club on the topic Monday.

As Kearny put it: The Republican Party seized upon the opportunity to influence the redrawing of lines, while Democrats were "asleep at the wheel" and missed out.

"This time there will be no one sleeping at the wheel," he said, predicting a giant influx of money and special interests in the next redistricting round.

The process often gets little attention from the public.

"Redistricting is a rather wonkish and technical subject," said Marks, who is not an organizer of the Fair Districts group but will be taking part in the January symposium. "(But) it's extremely important and it has been taken to an extreme extent."

It's illegal to gerrymander, or intentionally and selectively draw districts, in an attempt to disenfranchise voters based on race.

But in Louisiana, where the parties have become increasingly divided among racial lines with black voters more likely to vote for Democrats and white voters more likely to back Republicans, Marks said that the lines can be blurred.

"It's really hard to tell which is which," he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide next year whether it's legal to draw districts to give a party a political advantage. The case is based on claims that the Republican Party in Wisconsin used the redistricting process there to tilt the political playing field in the GOP's favor.

Marks predicted a major "arms race" in the fight over redistricting, if the court agrees that lines can be drawn in politically advantageous ways.

"We are heading toward a huge fight in 2020 if the Supreme Court allows partisan gerrymandering to go on," he said. "If you think 2010 was something, 2020 is going to be worse."

At stake is the value of each vote, Marks said. He said that districts that pack too many Democrats into one to ensure an easy win, as well as those that overwhelmingly pack Republican voters into their boundaries to ensure GOP wins, mean that votes have less impact than those districts closer to 50-50 splits.

"This is an issue that really affects Louisiana," he said. "We're an outlier on the bad side and I think it strikes against a fundamental principle of American democracy."

"Universally, I think gerrymandering and redistricting is about as popular as the flu or cholera – it's not an issue where one side says it's great and the other side says its bad," Marks added.

Fair Districts Louisiana has not endorsed any proposed methods of redistricting. Kearny said the group hopes to use events like the symposium to gather information that can be compiled into a report that will be submitted to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature.

Most states redistricting processes resemble Louisiana's, leaving the work to state lawmakers and giving incumbents a voice in how their districts are drawn.

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana previously recommended that the Legislature establish an independent commission, with firmly established guidelines, to handle redistricting in the state.

Kearny said he doesn't see changing the redistricting process necessarily as a "panacea" to partisan politics, but he thinks that it could help tamp down polarization and radicalization.

"It sure is a huge part of the problem," he said. "It's fundamental that we solve this."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.