The lawful and efficient exercise of Democracy in the United States depends on voters being able to freely choose their leaders. In spite of that ideal, every ten years we subvert that process and instead allow leaders to choose their voters. We call this process Redistricting. Parts of this process are necessary and proper. It is necessary every ten years to take Census data and re-balance voting populations so that districts have roughly equal populations.
This assures fair representation so that each voter can be confident that their vote carries the same weight as the vote of a citizen in a neighboring district. The problem is that, in most states, the process is primarily designed to protect the self-interests of incumbents, rather than the interest of the voters. The leaders get to choose their own voters.
There are exceptions. Twenty-one states currently use some form of bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to redraw legislative district lines every ten years. The purpose of these commissions is to avoid the inherent ethical conflict of interest of having legislators draw their own districts, knowing that there will always be a natural human tendency to protect oneself from the opposition. Louisiana is not one of those commission states. Louisiana still allows its legislature to draw its own lines.
As expected, we already see signs that the tendency toward self-preservation is overpowering the legal requirement of fair representation of voters. For example, in the last US Census, the Black population of Louisiana increased by 4%, while the white population decreased by 6%. The Black population is currently 33%. In spite of this fact, the most recent legislative district map passed by the legislature, as of this writing, only has 29 majority-Black districts in the House of Representatives, out of a total of 105, for 28%. The growth in the Black population would seem to justify four Black-majority House seats being added. That total was 29 ten years ago as well.
Only one of the state’s Congressional districts is majority-Black. There are six districts, so one only represents about 16.6% of the population. Two majority-black districts would account for about 33% of the population, roughly equal to the Black population of the state. While creating four state house districts might be a challenge because they are spread out all over the state, creating an extra Congressional seat would be much simpler. In fact, several groups have already submitted compact maps that would create that second seat.
Creating Black-majority districts does not guarantee a Black person will be elected of course. Nor should it. The choice is always left to the voters. It simply creates an equal opportunity structure. It is notable that while there are white Louisiana legislators representing Black-majority districts, there are no Black legislators representing majority-white districts. The current opportunity structure is not equal. Historical analysis of voting results shows that while it is possible for a white candidate to be elected in a Black-majority district, it is almost impossible for a Black candidate to be elected in a white-majority district. Only proportional representation can bring some level of fairness to the opportunity structure.
In essence, the Louisiana Legislature has decided to maintain the status quo. They have decided to totally ignore the fact that there have been significant changes in the racial demographics of the population in the last ten years. This will leave the Black population of the state proportionally underrepresented, which, in addition to being unfair, is actually a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There will, of course, be consequences if the Legislature refuses to draw maps that proportionally represent the population of the state. The Governor has stated that he might veto any maps that do not meet the standard of proportional representation and send them back for further review. Regardless of the actions of the Governor, several organizations have promised to file lawsuits challenging the legality of the maps. The final set of maps might end up being drawn by the Federal Courts, an outcome that has happened in certain areas of Louisiana in the past.
The best outcome would be for citizens to contact their legislators and let them know that the current maps lack basic fairness because they do not proportionally represent the population. If the Legislature does not revisit these maps, then the next step would be to request a veto from the Governor. A veto would force the Legislature back to the bargaining table and perhaps reasonable heads will prevail. As a final resort, groups interested in fairness will go to the Federal Courts for relief.
The time for citizens of goodwill to mobilize is now. Otherwise, the Legislature will put their incumbent-protection plan in place and maintain the status quo for another ten years. All voters have the right to an opportunity structure that gives them a chance at representation
Robert Collins is a Professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University, and a former Congressional Staffer.