New group pushes to eliminate gerrymandering in Louisiana

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Brian Marks is not a co-founder of Fair Districts Louisiana. Daily Report regrets the error. 

A new advocacy group dedicated to fighting gerrymandering in Louisiana is rallying supporters and spreading its message ahead of next year’s Legislative session and the 2021 redistricting session.

Stephen Kearny, co-founder of Fair Districts Louisiana, along with LSU expert Brian Marks, spoke today about the issue at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, calling redistricting reform “fundamental” to America’s democratic system of government.

“We’re a highly gerrymandered state,” said Marks, an assistant professor of geography at LSU who will be a featured speaker at an upcoming event on redistricting. “Like so many other things in our state, we’re an outlier on the bad side.”

Several forces are at play amid the group’s efforts. The 2020 census will bring another round of redistricting at the state Legislature. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to strike down the highly partisan districts drawn by Wisconsin lawmakers in 2011, a ruling that could dramatically change how politicians draw districts.

Under the current system, the Louisiana Legislature draws political districts following each new U.S. Census estimate, which happens every decade. Stephen Kearny, another co-founder of Fair Districts Louisiana, said the group hasn’t endorsed any specific proposals yet. But he floated independent commissions or empirically-backed rules for lawmakers in drawing districts, which have been used in varying degrees elsewhere in the country.

While gerrymandering along racial lines was outlawed by the Voting Rights Act, partisan gerrymandering is legal. In Louisiana, partisanship is split heavily along racial lines, complicating the picture. To make things more uncertain, there will be dozens of new legislators in 2021, a product of some of the first rounds of term limits, and lawmakers in the past have taken incumbency into account when drawing lines.

Fair Districts Louisiana plans to push for legislative changes during next year’s session, as well as in 2021 following the Supreme Court ruling. Several lawmakers have expressed interest in the effort, Kearny says, including state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. Still, the group would have to convince a Republican majority in the Legislature not to draw districts that would help them get re-elected.

—Sam Karlin

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