The exercise is as old as the Republic, but the first thing you need to understand about redistricting is that hot-water cornbread is as ubiquitous in north Louisiana as étouffée is in the south, says Rick Gallot, the Ruston Democratic representative who a decade ago was atop the decennial legislative effort to align the census to the districts that elect representatives, senators, congressmen, and all manner of government posts.
It’s a numbers game, but it’s also politics, Gallot said last week in reminiscing about the 2011 effort. As such, two strategies compete in drawing maps: districts drawn geographically of constituents with like regional interests or drawn to pack districts with voters of like political philosophies.
Louisiana legislators begin a statewide tour this week to hear from voters in preparation for their February redistricting session.
The 2020 census cataloged a significant shift from rural Louisiana to cities and suburbs, leaving many northern districts with too few residents and many southern districts with too many. In the Louisiana House, 29 of the 105 seats have too many constituents and 37 have too few. In the 39-seat state Senate, 10 districts have too many and 15 have too few.
Precincts need to be reorganized into districts with roughly the same populations.
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Now president of Grambling State University, then chair of the House Governmental Affairs committee, Gallot recalls hours in the Pentagon Barracks, where many legislators stay in Baton Rouge, listening to his colleagues explain why this precinct needed to remain in their district while that one could go elsewhere.
But the biggest issue in 2011 were partisan majorities in Congress. Back then, Louisiana lost so many people that the state also lost its seventh congressman. In 2021, no congressmen were lost but the shift in population raises the possibility that the current configuration of congressional districts will be adjusted.
In 2011, Gov. Bobby Jindal wanted to send two representatives from north Louisiana to Washington, D.C., and his aides let it be known that he would veto any bill that did not have that configuration. Jindal had the votes to enforce his vision.
To make the numbers work, Black voters were packed into the 2nd Congressional District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Troy Carter. Third District Congressman Jeff Landry, who was widely supported by insurgent tea parties, had to run against 7th District Rep. Charles Boustany, who was widely supported by establishment Republicans, for what became the newly combined 3rd District representing much of Acadiana.
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The 4th District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, stretched south from Shreveport into Acadiana’s St. Landry Parish west of Opelousas. The 5th Congressional District, now represented by Congresswoman Julia Letlow, was drawn to run from Monroe to Opelousas and to stretch across the Florida parishes to Bogalusa.
With the shifts in populations, some wags say Johnson will have to represent Houma also to keep the same configuration.
Gallot preferred a single congressional district for north Louisiana that would have run along Interstate 20.
He notes that high schools in the parishes along the Arkansas border play each other in sports. The populations use the airports in Shreveport and Monroe. They watch television based in those cities.
“We’re more alike along the I-20 than we are with the southern parishes,” Gallot said.
Though their voters aren’t numerous enough to outnumber the red north Louisiana parishes, having both Shreveport and Monroe in the same district would increase the number of blue voters and make the district more competitive for Democrats. But Gallot couldn’t find enough support.
Gallot said packing districts to guarantee elected officials follow a certain political philosophy is why Congress can’t get anything done.
As a northeast Louisiana legislator, Gallot backed the incentive package to keep the Saints in New Orleans, which was unpopular among his constituents — most of whom were Cowboys’ fans.
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Gallot, whose district was not packed, faced angered neighbors by pointing out that improving the Superdome was good for the state’s economy, even if the impact on northeast Louisiana was minimal.
“It does everybody a disservice by not having a district that is balanced among all the different demographics, such that everybody is not going to be happy every time you make a vote. But on the whole at least they will say that he’s voting on the issues not just party or race or whatever the deal is.”