The way Louisiana does reapportionment is a farce of epic proportions.
Legislators remain hard at work embarrassing themselves before the decennial derby known as “redistricting” comes to a merciful close by the evening of April 13, but the deeds of pretentious self-interest are essentially done.
Redistricting happens because the U.S. Constitution and various federal laws say it must happen. The theory is pretty simple: A national census is taken every 10 years and then congressional and state legislative district maps are redrawn so that each respective district is generally rebalanced by population.
Leave it to elected officials, however, to take a relatively straightforward task and turn it into a political quagmire of self-preservation and entitlement. We can thank the Republican-controlled Congress of the 1920s and the Reapportionment Act of 1929—along with a related 1932 U.S. Supreme Court decision—for giving birth to the notion that protecting incumbents should be the paramount concern of the redistricting process.
Ever since, state legislators across the nation partake in this once-a-decade March madness, a deal-cutting big dance where the goal is to reach this final four: 1] reflect changes in political power, 2] protect incumbents facing re-election, 3] create unfavorable conditions for elected officials out of favor, and 4] ensure districts are filled with like-minded voters to protect the current power structure.
Adding to the intrigue here is that, thanks to the courts declaring that we have a tendency to make decisions that aren’t especially favorable to blacks, Louisiana is one of 16 states partially or wholly affected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This means, among other things, that the feds, wanting to make sure we’re not diluting black voter strength, must give the thumbs-up to our redistricting decisions.
This, of course, is achieved with districts that are gerrymandered to the point where a person living just outside of Lake Charles can be in the same district as someone living just outside of Shreveport, and a person living in Baton Rouge is represented by an elected official who lives in New Orleans.
It’s all done in the name of turf protection.
If this sleazed-up process isn’t complicated enough, it’s especially tricky for Louisiana this go-round, since our population growth rate declined and—thanks to Katrina—dramatically shifted over the past decade. The result is twofold: the loss of one congressional seat, and the Baton Rouge area gaining population and political clout at the expense of New Orleans. As one might expect, nothing stirs up a good political scrum like someone frantically trying to cling to power while another frantically tries to claim it.
Entertaining as it is, one has to wonder: Isn’t there a better way?
Indeed there is; it’s just that in the political muck of Louisiana—where power, vindictiveness and self-preservation are seen as political birthrights—there’s zero interest in change.
However, there are places where eliminating or reducing politics from the redistricting process is seen as a good thing. In Iowa, the entire process is left up to nonpartisan legislative staff. In 13 other states, an independent commission handles the once-a-decade chore. Eight other states, including Mississippi and Texas, give the ultimate authority to the Legislature, but utilize advisory committees.
Thanks to technology, when it comes to redistricting there’s even several apps for that.
The Public Affairs Research Council, for the record, has repeatedly clamored for redistricting reform. The response from legislators goes something like this: “Go back to your ivory tower of good government ideals and leave us the hell alone.”
Here’s my thought: If the folks at the State Capitol are so smart, how come Louisiana is pretty much last in everything they’re responsible for managing?
Perhaps the best idea came from an acquaintance who wondered, “Any chance we can redistrict legislators out of existence?”