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Voting machines are prepared before early voting begins at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. 

Several hundred seniors, mostly African American, gathered in Baton Rouge back in 2014 to visit with their elected officials.

Republican Bill Cassidy, then a member of the U.S. House but coveting a seat in the upper chamber, didn’t show up even though he lives less than five miles away. Sharp politician that he is, Cedric Richmond, then a Democratic member of the U.S. House living 87 miles away in New Orleans, pointed out that their congressman, Cassidy, didn’t bother to attend.

Oops.

Turns out their congressman was there and he was none other than Richmond, who was surprised to learn that the hall was actually in his 2nd Congressional District, not Cassidy’s 6th.

A Republican Legislature in March 2011 had drawn the lines of the 2nd District from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, only a precinct deep in some places, to north Baton Rouge. It packed in as many Democratic Black voters as possible and thereby kept Louisiana’s other five congressional districts safely in the GOP.

A decade later, now Troy Carter’s 2nd Congressional District is 31% White and Garret Graves’ 6th District has become 71% White — numbers so one-sided that Carter doesn’t need to heed the opinions of White voters, and Graves can safely ignore the Black voices.

Redistricting this time won’t be as easy.

Last week’s release of the congressional apportionment results from the nation’s decennial census set state legislatures across the U.S. to begin redrawing the lines of districts whose voters will choose congressmen, and all other officials not elected statewide, for the next 10 years.

Litigation and delays made the 2020 census one of the most contentious ever. And the numbers look good for Republicans who picked up congressional seats in Texas and Florida, among other traditional red states, while New York and California, historically blue, will lose seats in the next Congress. Not only seats in the House but Electoral College votes could change.

It’s also the first time in decades that states with a history of civil rights violations, like Louisiana, don’t have to pre-clear their plans with the U.S. Justice Department.

The first lawsuit was filed last week, which includes Louisiana voters, in what the congressional trade publication The Hill calls “a preview of what is all but certain to be the most litigated remap in American history.”

The lawsuit, filed by former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Redistricting Action Fund, asks courts to draw the maps if the states can’t agree. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, for instance, can throw out the maps drawn by the majority Republican Legislature — leading to a veto override that the GOP would likely lose, and then paralysis heading into the 2022 congressional elections. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, North Carolina, a few weeks ago asked Edwards to make public what criteria would trigger his veto. Edwards asked to postpone that discussion until after the annual legislative session ends in June.

Meanwhile, a dozen or so advocacy groups are organizing voters to become more involved in the redistricting process.

Locally, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, based in Baton Rouge, is hosting a virtual “Redistricting Academy,” from 3 p.m.to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday to train community members on the software to draw their own maps, said founder Ashley Shelton. On-the-ground experts will follow up after the training.

The Power Coalition filed last year's lawsuit that led a federal court in Baton Rouge to order expansion of mail-in balloting and early voting in November’s presidential election.

African American and Hispanic populations have grown in Jefferson Parish to the point that a second minority-majority congressional district is possible, Shelton said. But at the very least, the group wants congressional districts redrawn to give the population among each district’s minority a greater voice.

“We’re looking at redistricting holistically, that is, making districts more competitive so that the voices of one group won’t be neutered,” Shelton said.

She defines that goal as no districts with more than 65% of one race, which is the most obvious but not the only means of defining common interests among voters. That means all but one of Louisiana’s six congressional seats need to be redrawn to include more Blacks or more Whites. Only the 4th Congressional District, where Whites make up about 62% of registered voters, barely meets her criteria.

Shelton said that along with energizing voters to select their member of Congress, rather than politicians selecting their voters, her group is positioning itself to file a lawsuit, if need be. “We will have the evidence we will need to say the community’s needs and wants weren’t listened to,” Shelton said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.