The redistricting that will take place after the 2020 census, determining the shapes of the congressional and state legislative districts in Louisiana, was not a staple issue on the campaign trail for governor in the race that ended earlier this month.
That doesn’t mean redistricting didn’t loom large over the race. And now that Gov. John Bel Edwards has won reelection as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, Democrats are celebrating one of their own having the ability to veto maps drawn by the Republican-led Legislature, which came close to gaining full control over the process this year.
Although neither Edwards nor his Republican challenger Eddie Rispone talked about redistricting on the campaign trail, a national Democratic group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former President Barack Obama gave about $350,000 to Louisiana’s Democratic Party infrastructure during the runoff elections with the goal of keeping the party in a position of influence over redistricting.
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Louisiana was one of 12 states the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is targeting in the 2019-20 election cycle, and its stated goal in Louisiana was to keep Edwards in office and prevent a Republican “trifecta” from “rigging the state’s maps for another decade.”
“It is incredibly important we kept the Governor’s Mansion for a myriad of different reasons,” said Stephen Handwerk, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “But this is certainly one of them, because we only get one bite at the apple every 10 years.”
Redistricting won’t take place until 2021, after the 2020 census estimates the population of Louisiana and other states. Still, the Democratic priorities — including pushing for another majority-minority district in Congress — are beginning to take shape. Handwerk noted Louisiana is roughly one-third black, yet only one of the state’s six seats in Congress, the one held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, is represented by a black person.
In Louisiana, as in most states, the governor has veto power over redistricting plans, which are created by state lawmakers.
At a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion a few days after winning reelection earlier this month, Edwards said he’s looking forward to redistricting to “create maps that reflect a sense of fairness.” He did not answer when asked whether Louisiana needs another competitive congressional district, saying only that the maps should be fair.
“We need to make sure we have maps where voters choose their officials and not the other way around,” Edwards said. “We just need fair maps. Sometimes you can just look at a map and you see the irregular-shaped districts, and you know something was at play.”
Stephen Kearny, co-founder of Fair Districts Louisiana, said more than 80 candidates in Louisiana during the 2019 cycle signed onto a pledge to work for transparency in redistricting and to draw competitive districts, among other things.
In the upcoming legislative session, Kearny said Fair Districts will push for several changes to how Louisiana draws its maps. The group hopes to pass a law requiring a waiting period between when the maps pass out of committee and when they are voted on by the full Legislature, to allow the public a chance to review them.
The group will push for a study committee to present best practices to lawmakers ahead of 2021, as well as some “bare minimum” standards for the maps. Kearny also said the organization will push to end “prison gerrymandering,” the practice of counting prisoners in the place they are incarcerated, instead of where they lived before being locked up.
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“That Louisiana has a divided government bodes well for us, but unless citizens turn off the TV and pay attention to what their government is doing, we could still have distorted maps after the 2021 redistricting,” Kearny said.
Kearny noted that in the 39-seat state Senate, only five races went to runoff elections, signs that the districts are noncompetitive.
Brian Marks, an assistant professor of geography at LSU who studies redistricting, noted Louisiana has not been home to some of the high-profile partisan battles over redistricting seen in places like North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Beyond Louisiana’s congressional maps, in which the parties will likely fight over whether there should be one more competitive or majority-minority district, state legislators will also redraw their own district maps for the next decade. Marks said the state Senate has some “particularly strange districts,” in many cases drawn to create a safe seat for the incumbent. With a Democratic governor and Republican Legislature, Marks said lawmakers could opt to protect themselves in redistricting.
“In divided government, you tend to get more incumbency protection because both sides have to compromise,” he said. “What both parties can compromise on is, ‘I’ll scratch your back; you scratch mine.’ ”
Louisiana is not expected to lose a congressional seat in the next round of redistricting. States can gain or lose seats in Congress based on population changes, and Louisiana lost a seat after the 2010 census — the one held by then-Congressman Jeff Landry. Landry has since been elected twice as the state’s attorney general and has worked to move the state Legislature philosophically to the right.
Complicating the redistricting picture in Louisiana is a racially polarized electorate and a legal landscape that has raised questions about whether the state’s districts are gerrymandered to disenfranchise black voters — and whether there will be enough protections in place to prevent that from happening in 2021.
The upcoming redistricting cycle is expected to be the first without the long-standing protection of the Voting Rights Act, which previously aimed to ensure voting changes in certain places, including Louisiana, didn’t deny the right to vote based on race. For decades, Louisiana was one of several states that were required to submit their maps to the federal courts in a process known as “preclearance.” But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively swept that requirement aside, meaning the courts won’t have to give their stamp of approval before Louisiana’s next maps are adopted.
Still, although the Supreme Court has held that lawmakers are allowed to draw districts to disadvantage certain political parties, it has also held that they cannot draw districts to disenfranchise voters based on race.
In Louisiana, though, the lines between race and party are often blurred. For instance, large majorities of black voters side with Democrats in most statewide and federal elections. That makes it complicated to tell if a district is drawn to disadvantage Democratic candidates or disenfranchise black voters.
“In Louisiana, partisan gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering look almost identical,” Marks said.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group led by Obama and Holder, is not only looking to elect favorable officials for redistricting, but it is also funding lawsuits in multiple states, including Louisiana, to create more majority-minority congressional districts by claiming the current maps are gerrymandered to discriminate against black voters.
The suits are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the committee. The U.S. Department of Justice under Holder approved Louisiana's congressional maps in 2011.
The lawsuit here claims Louisiana’s congressional districts packed black voters into Richmond’s district and spread them out among the other five to limit their influence. Republicans, who had complete control of the redistricting process when Louisiana’s maps were drawn in 2011, during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, have panned the suit as a political tactic.
A spokesman for Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the defendant in the lawsuit, didn’t return a request for comment.
The committee also gave $100,000 each to the Louisiana House Democratic Campaign Committee, state Democratic Party and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee of Louisiana through a political action committee during this year’s runoff elections. Through its 501(c)(4), the organization gave $50,000 to the American Leadership Committee, a Democratic super PAC.
On the Republican side, national groups also poured money into Louisiana to influence the governor’s race. The Republican National Committee spent at least $2 million, and the Republican Governors Association spent several million more to flip the seat, and Republican political operatives here previously said redistricting was top of mind of GOP organizations.
Louis Gurvich, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, said redistricting was not a major issue for the party in the 2019 elections, as it sought to flip Louisiana’s governorship back to red in a state President Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016. But Gurvich pointed to the party’s other victories, like securing all other statewide offices and a supermajority in the state Senate. He did say the GOP wants to ensure districts are drawn “as fairly as we possibly can.”
“The governor has his own agenda. So having him as part of the process is something that we have to live with,” he said.