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The Senate chamber, Monday Jan. 31, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. The legislative special session on political redistricting begins at 5 p.m. on Tuesday Feb.1st.

A plan to redraw Louisiana’s six congressional districts cleared a major hurdle Thursday when the state House of Representatives voted to advance a proposal from House Speaker Clay Schexnayder that hews closely to existing district boundaries and maintains the status quo of a single majority-Black district.

House Bill 1 faced near uniform opposition from Black Democrats, who joined a chorus of civil rights groups in arguing that the proposal violates the federal Voting Rights Act. Several attempts to amend the bill to create a second majority-Black district failed on the House floor.

The measure passed by a 70-33 margin.

In presenting the legislation, Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, said the proposal attempted to maintain Louisiana’s “traditional” district boundaries. If enacted, the map all but ensures that White voters will maintain control over who is elected in five of the six seats.

State Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, asked Magee whether the proposal reflects Louisiana’s demographic changes over the last decade. He noted that according to the U.S. Census, the Black population increased by 3.78% while the White population decreased by 6.3%.

“It reflects the traditional boundaries we’ve always had,” Magee said, adding that racial proportionality was not a driving factor in drawing the map.

With around 33% of Louisiana’s population identifying as Black, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Black lawmakers have argued it’s only fair that Black voters have the opportunity to elect one-third of Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

Civil rights groups argue that a map that doesn’t include a second majority-Black district likely violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits diluting minority voting strength.

Magee said he thinks the bill is legal, while acknowledging that he isn’t an expert on the Voting Rights Act.

“I want to know why you think it’s legal,” Duplessis countered.

“I’m not going to get into a debate into the finer points of federal election law,” Magee responded.

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If the plan is challenged in court, plaintiffs will have to prove that the Black population is “sufficiently large and geographically compact” to create an additional district where Black voters constitute a majority. Several proposals that achieve that objective were debated – and rejected – in the House & Governmental Affairs committee Thursday morning.

“It is very possible to draw an additional African-American opportunity district,” concluded Democratic Caucus Chair Sam Jenkins of Shreveport.

A sweeping amendment from state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat, to redraw the map to include a second majority-Black district failed on a 71-30 vote. Another proposal from state Rep. Randal Gaines, a Laplace Democrat, failed on a 70-33 vote.

“It’s clear there was no attempt … to create another minority-majority district,” Marcelle said.

All but two GOP lawmakers voted for the legislation. The dissenting Republicans — state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, and Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Gray — said they couldn't support a map that split St. Martin Parish into separate congressional districts.

Also voting for the measure were state Rep. Francis Thompson, a White Democrat from Delhi, Rep. Malinda White, a White independent from Bogalusa, Rep. C. Travis Johnson, a Black Democrat from Vidalia, and Rep. Joe Marino, a White independent from Gretna. 

HB1 now heads to the Senate for consideration. On Tuesday, the upper chamber approved its own congressional redistricting plan, Senate Bill 5, which similarly packs Black voters into the Second Congressional District stretching from New Orleans East to north Baton Rouge.

Voting FOR House Bill 1 (70): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Bacala, Bagley, Beaullieu, Bishop, Bourriaque, Butler, Carrier, Coussan, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Freiberg, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Geymann, Goudeau, Harris, Hilferty, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Huval, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, T. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, Magee, Marino, McCormick, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, G. Miller, Mincey, Muscarello, Nelson, Orgeron, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Schlegel, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Stagni, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Villio, Wheat, White, Wright and Zeringue.

Voting AGAINST HB1 (33): Reps Adams, Amedee, Boyd, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Carpenter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Cormier, Cox, Duplessis, Fisher, Freeman, Gaines, Glover, Green, Hughes, Jefferson, Jenkins, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, Miguez, D. Miller, Newell, Phelps, Pierre, Selders and Willard.

Not Voting (1): Rep. Moore

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater