A Democratic political group launched a legal campaign Wednesday to create additional majority-minority congressional district in Louisiana and two other Southern states, claiming the current maps discriminate against black voters.
Attorneys filed separate federal lawsuits in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, challenging congressional maps lawmakers in each state approved in 2011.
The lawsuits filed on behalf of several black voters in each state are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The legal actions claim the districts violate a section of the Voting Rights Act by depriving black voters of an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to the U.S. House of Representatives. They ask the courts to block the three states from holding any more congressional elections under their current maps.
The lawsuit challenging Louisiana's map, filed in Baton Rouge federal district court, claims state lawmakers illegally limited minority voting influence by "packing" black voters into one majority-minority district and "cracking," or spreading them out, among other districts.
For instance, U.S. Congressional District 2, represented by Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond, stretches from New Orleans, through predominantly African-American precincts along the Mississippi River, and curls into the majority black neighborhoods of north Baton Rouge. The 6th Congressional District, represented by Republican Congressman Garret Graves, is centered around the predominantly white sections of south Baton Rouge, the city's suburbs and coastal parishes.
About 59.7 percent of African Americans in the 2nd Congressional District are old enough to vote. In the 6th District the Black Voting Age Population is 21.5 percent.
Nearly 32.6 percent of Louisiana’s population was African American – the second highest percentage in the nation – when the districts were drawn. Only one of the state’s six congressmen are African American.
Plaintiff Renard Thomas, of New Orleans, argues that his vote is of lesser value because of African-American voters are so concentrated in the Second Congressional District.
Plaintiff Mildred Armstrong, of West Feliciana Parish, claimed she had been unable to elect her candidates because so few African-American voters were included the 5th U.S. Congressional District. The Republican majority in the Louisiana Legislature chose to draw the district represented by U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, south from northeast Louisiana across the Florida parishes to the toe of the boot. Legislators' other choice was to draw east-west district lines along Interstate 20 to include of both Shreveport and Monroe, which would have increased the number of minority voters.
All nine Louisiana plaintiffs sought a second minority-majority congressional district.
The new lawsuits mean there now are redistricting challenges pending in a dozen states — in some places, multiple lawsuits —alleging racial or political gerrymandering in U.S. House or state legislative districts. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this month on at least two of those cases alleging unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering by the Republican-led Legislature in Wisconsin and the Democratic-led Legislature in Maryland.
Though likely too late to affect this year's elections, the lawsuits could force districts to be redrawn in advance of the 2020 elections. The timing is important because any court rulings could set precedents for when all states must redraw legislative districts based on the results of the 2020 Census.
During the last round of redistricting, Republicans who swept to power in many state capitols in 2010 used their newly enlarged majorities to draw districts that Democrats contend have made it harder from them to regain power during the past decade.
Democrats aided by Holder and former President Barack Obama are attempting to better position themselves for the next round of redistricting by backing state legislative candidates, lawsuits and ballot initiatives that would shift redistricting powers away from lawmakers to independent commissions in some states.
"The creation of additional districts in which African Americans have the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates in each of these states will be an important step toward making the voting power of African Americans more equal and moving us closer to the ideals of our representative democracy," Holder said Wednesday.
The National Redistricting Foundation also is helping finance pending lawsuits in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, accused Holder of "resorting to politically-motivated litigation aimed at taking away the constitutional authority of elected state legislators to draw district lines."
"The cynical lawsuits filed today by Holder and the Democrats are crass attempts to rally the left-wing base and to elect more Democrats through litigation, instead of running winning campaigns on policies and ideas that voters actually want," Walter said in an email Wednesday.
Each state's chief elections official is named as the defendant in each lawsuit.
Holder was serving as attorney general under Obama when the Justice Department cleared the 2011 congressional maps in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana as complying with the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn't prohibit subsequent lawsuits asserting violations under a different section of the act.
Republicans hold commanding congressional majorities over Democrats in each of the challenged states, controlling six of the seven U.S. House seats in Alabama, 10 of the 14 seats in Georgia and five of the six seats in Louisiana. All the Republican House members for those states are white and all the Democratic representatives are black.
The Alabama suit claims the state's 2011 map illegally "packs" black voters into its sole majority African-American district, now represented by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, and "cracks" voters among three other districts. The lawsuit contends that Alabama's black population is large enough, and geographically compact enough, to form a second majority-minority district.
State Sen. Gerald Dial, a Republican who sponsored Alabama's 2011 redistricting plan, said the map reflects the state's population.
"I think their complaint is not grounded," Dial said Wednesday.
The Georgia lawsuit claims lawmakers redrew the 12th congressional district to excise black voters in Savannah and add white voters from two counties, reducing the district's black population of voting age from 41.5 percent to 33.3 percent.
Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau and Associated Press writer Kim Chandler contributed to this report.