JR Ball: The ‘shocking’ story of redistricting in Louisiana


A group calling itself Fair Districts Louisiana is out to pull off the impossible: Get power-addicted elected officials to give up a power that—among other things—practically guarantees their continued re-election.

This grassroots, bipartisan collection of do-gooders—perhaps drawing inspiration from Casablanca’s Captain Louis Renault—is shocked, shocked, to find politicians are gaming the once-a-decade joy that is redistricting.

Elected officials putting self-interest over common sense? Say it ain’t so.

“We have a problem with the current structure,” Stephen Kearny, co-founder of Fair Districts Louisiana, told The Associated Press. “No matter how virtuous our politicians are, the conflict of interest in being able to choose your own voters in itself provokes bad behavior.”

Ya’ think?

Want to know where most of our current problems in government begin? Look no further than the increasingly partisan, often racially divided districts our nation’s elected officials—including those right here in Louisiana—are creating.

Gridlocked legislative bodies? Redistricting. Political speech becoming increasingly vitriolic? Redistricting. The extreme wings of both the Democrat and Republican parties dominating the political process? Redistricting. Helpless moderates? Redistricting. The extinction of passionate debate followed by compromise, and the death of the “greater good?” You guessed it: redistricting.

Embarking upon a quixotic quest to semi-right this wrong, Fair Districts Louisiana is partnering with LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs to host a daylong summit in January that, undoubtedly, will explore this problem in great detail. As for possible solutions … well … maybe, maybe not. Kearny says the goal is to raise public awareness. CABL’s Barry Erwin says, “It’s just about getting a dialogue going on this.”

That, perhaps, is the politically expedient approach. But it’s a path akin to another traffic study. We know the problem, people, fix it.

We go through this redistricting rumba every decade following the release of updated Census data. Federal law tells us states must then redraw their political maps to account for population shifts. For better and usually worse, the method by which these boundaries are redrawn is a decision left to the states. In Louisiana, and 36 other states, legislators believe they’re the best folks to make sure electoral districts for congressional, state House and state Senate seats are—ahem—fairly and squarely redrawn.

No, that’s not a joke.

Let’s save the well-meaning Fair District folks some time and jump straight to the solution phase: Remove the politicians from the process and let the computers and sabermetrics geeks handle what for them is entry-level mathematics.

Shocking to exactly no one, the process of elected officials determining the geography and voter demographics of their own districts—as well as those of their political cohorts—is raising more than a few eyebrows. Hard to believe, but there are some among us who have the audacity to suggest this method might—just might—give incumbents as well as the state’s controlling political party something of an unfair advantage. A complaint about the way pro-GOP cheeseheads in Wisconsin connect the political boundary dots has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case doesn’t deal with the issue of racial bias—that was addressed in a May Supreme Court ruling on two North Carolina districts—but, rather, on partisan and unequal representation.

Indeed, at question is whether the gerrymandering done by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature discriminates against Democrats, but at the heart of the case is something called the “efficiency gap,” which measures the number of “wasted” votes.

There are two types of wasted votes: 1) any vote cast for the losing candidate, and 2) all the “extra” votes cast for a winning candidate. For example, if Jane Smith beats John Doe, 100-45, in an election, the 45 votes cast for Doe are considered “wasted” as well as votes 47-through-100 for Smith.

The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to force the other party to “waste” votes and the “efficiency gap” determines if the controlling party went too far in achieving that goal.

It’s complicated … I get it.

To be fair, there will always be wasted votes. As a middle-of-the-road Republican in a decidedly Democratic state House district, my vote—and political point of view—is of no consequence to Rep. Pat Smith, who happens to be “my” elected representative. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have the basis of a lawsuit.

Still, this egocentric desire to place political ideology and personal self-interest over common sense and basic geometric shapes is why the votes of far too many of us really don’t matter whenever we roll to the polls.

Seriously, have you seen this state’s 2nd congressional district, which meanders like the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican, seemingly has had an epiphany, declaring far too many Louisiana districts are either “ultraliberal” or “ultraconservative.”

“I just think that there’s a whole lot of people that are underrepresented because districts are drawn in a way that are too ideological in one direction or the other,”  the AP quotes Stokes as saying. “I have people come up to me all the time and say that they feel like the outliers are making all the decisions.”

There have been efforts to change the way Louisiana handles its redistricting business in the past, but lawmakers—shockingly—have been unwilling to relinquish one iota of power.

Which explains the view of Rep. Mike Danahay, a Sulphur Democrat and chair of the House committee that oversees redistricting, who says he sees no reason to change business as usual. “Who better knows their districts than those lawmakers?” he tells the AP—I assume with a straight face.

Really?

Let’s save the well-meaning Fair District folks some time and jump straight to the solution phase: Remove the politicians from the process and let the computers and sabermetrics geeks handle what for them is entry-level mathematics.

If these wonks can determine launch angles and exit velocities on home runs and tell us that strikeouts are OK, but bunts are bad, then certainly these brainiacs can handle the business of carving out this state’s election districts. 

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