Alford: Bold changes expected via redistricting

(File photo)

Lawmakers have tentatively targeted Feb. 1, 2022, as the start date for their special session on redistricting. The process that will bring us to that day begins in earnest later this week when the Legislature’s governmental affairs committees gather in Baton Rouge to kick off a monthslong series of public meetings. 

A redistricting session takes place every 10 years. Not long after the U.S. Census Bureau releases its own decennial population counts, lawmakers get together and redraw election lines—for everything from the Public Service Commission to Congress—based on those figures.  

Our state representatives and senators were informed of their own district population numbers about two weeks ago. That’s when some lawmakers learned their districts were drained of population over the past decade. Others discovered their districts contained way more residents than what was thought. 

The redistricting process is supposed to level the playing field. For example, each House district should have roughly 44,000 residents, based on a distribution of the latest census figures for Louisiana. In the Senate, the magic number is 119,000. Lawmakers will be able to deviate from these averages by plus or minus 5 percent when they’re redrawing districts next year

Putting this formula into practice could mean a loss of legislative seats for north Louisiana, particularly in the Shreveport region, as other areas like the Northshore, New Orleans, Ascension, Livingston and Baton Rouge look to expand. 

“I was not surprised to see the big gains in New Orleans and on the Northshore, but I was surprised by how much was lost in rural areas,” says House and Governmental Affairs Chair John Stefanski, R-Crowley, a key leader in the redistricting process. “No matter where you looked, rural areas lost people. Even in my district. I think you could see more of a concentration around urban areas and maybe some rural districts get larger.

Longtime political observers might be surprised to learn that conversations are ongoing about a redistricting plan for the Louisiana Supreme Court. In recent history, lawmakers have taken a hands-off approach to these lines, redrawing them only once over the past 80 years. 

The timing might be right for the top court this go-around. “I think the justices have an interest in redistricting based on population because you can really see a difference in the workloads between the districts,” says Senate and Governmental Affairs Chair Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.

Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, pushed for changes to the Supreme Court’s districts earlier this year, which turned a spotlight on the court. During legislative debates, McMath said the largest Supreme Court district in Louisiana now has 75 percent more voters than its smallest district.

When it comes to congressional maps, all eyes are on the districts of Congressman Mike Johnson and Congresswoman Julia Letlow. The districts occupied by these two Republicans have lost tens of thousands of residents, which means their districts will have to be reshaped to some extent.

The 4th and 5th districts currently stand side by side in north Louisiana, jogging vertically. Some have suggested all of north Louisiana could be split more horizontally. Others realize the district may ultimately resemble a shape that’s difficult to describe on the page. “That’s a difficult situation because the only place those districts can go is south,” Stefanski says. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, meanwhile, has a huge role to play. A former member of the House, Edwards enjoys veto authority, which was a major talking point for national Democrats during the governor’s re-election bid. Whether Edwards will use that authority will be an unmissable theme during the special session. 

So far the governor, saddled with directing recovery efforts for Hurricane Ida and the pandemic, has taken a quiet approach to the process, according to lawmakers. “I think this is a legislative exercise,” Stefanski says. “I haven’t had any contact with the governor’s office on redistricting.” 

Edwards, however, has already said he has an interest in redistricting and that he wants a fair and even-handed process. His role may be a quiet one right now, but it won’t stay that way.

(For more on what’s to come, visit https://redist.legis.la.gov)

 Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.