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Who’s Interest is Being Served?

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


It’s getting close to redistricting time for legislators, and the criticism that decisions are being shaped behind closed doors is already raining down on this politically sensitive process. Lawmakers in my home state of Louisiana have scheduled a special session of its legislature in March to divvy up the various political boundaries including congressional, public service commission, and their own legislative districts. But a question should be asked as to why lawmakers are meeting at all?

By federal law, all election districts throughout the state must be reapportioned every 10 years in order to reflect the latest census figures. And as 2011 approaches, Louisiana elections officials are in a bind, knowing that census figures have just become available, in the same year as the Louisiana gubernatorial election.  A process does need to be in place so that quick action can be taken once the new census figures are available — but should legislators, who have a vested interest in how the redistricting lines are drawn, actually do the drawing?

The problem is one of gerrymandering, where district lines are drawn  not to reflect geographical or political balance, but to favor the incumbent or some other partisan choice.  When legislators do the redistricting, the norm seems to be that the state ends up with meandering footprints meticulously designed, it would seem, to ensure that no incumbent will face serious opposition regardless of how the political winds are blowing.  Louisiana political columnist John Maginnis summed the problem up well when he wrote:  “Think about it this way.  In elections, people choose their legislators.  In reapportionment, legislators choose their people.”

Gerrymandering, by the way, means to manipulate the electoral boundaries for political gain so as to give undue influence to an incumbent or other favored candidate. The name comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 created winding districts that looked like salamanders to favor incumbents. Thus the convoluted word of gerrymandering.

What most voters want to avoid is the self dealing by legislators where voting districts slash across communities of interest and geography.  A blatant example of winding, disjointed gerrymandering is the Louisiana third congressional district.  It winds from the Mississippi border south of New Orleans though the southern part of Jefferson Parish, and all the way through south Louisiana up to Lafayette, some 300 miles in length. And it was created with one purpose in mind; to protect the local incumbent.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been leading an effort in his home state to get the elected officials out of the redistricting business.  “The politicians have divided a neighborhood,” he says.  “They have divided cities, towns and people, and this is what we what want to eliminate.   And this is why we need redistricting, because the district lines were drawn to favor incumbents, rather than to favor the voters.”

The question for voters is this:  Are they concerned that the legislature is, for all practical purposes, creating their own voters?  Is this healthy in the Bayou State, or for that matter, any state?  Many think it’s not.

“The self-dealing quality of legislators drawing districts for themselves or for their partisans has basically collapsed the enterprise,” says Samuel Issacharoff, a law professor, who is an expert on redistricting.  “There’s an increasing sense of revulsion among voters at this self-dealing.  It is somewhat scandalous that there are few competitive elections anymore.”

So what are the alternatives?  What are other progressive states doing to transfer the power of redistricting to a system less driven by self-interest?  Fourteen states have assigned the task to officials or panels outside the state legislature. Independent redistricting wears the cloak of good-government reform, as long as a consensus can be built on just who will serve on such panels.  How do you pick the members?  How can such a system be put in place that assures voters the final result will be fair, non-partisan, and keep local interests balanced?

There are a number of bright people in here Louisiana and in every state with solid business and educational backgrounds that are capable of taking on this controversial task.  There are several respected demographers in the state, and a number of professors at Louisiana universities well qualified for the job. Retired judges fit the category. as well as representatives of some of the state’s good government groups.

When I was first elected to the Louisiana legislature back in 1971, legislative redistricting had taken place just months before.  But the reapportionment plan did not pass federal court muster, and was thrown out just weeks before the primary election date.  Ed Steimel was head of the Public Affairs Research Council at the time, and he was appointed by federal judge Frank Polozola to serve as a “special master” to redraw the district lines.  Based on Steimel’s rework, the old plan was thrown out and the new court ordered plan put in place.  There was general agreement that the Steimel Plan was fair and kept districts more cohesive and less spread out. (It must have been good as I won my senate seat easily in the first primary.)

One idea would be to create in each state a Fair Reapportionment Practices Commission made up from a cross section of various recommendations.  Let nominations come from the legislature, the Supreme Court, good government groups, various college boards, and perhaps a key business group or two.  Then put all the submissions in a hat, and draw out eleven names to serve as members to begin their work right after the new census data is made available.

The goal for such a commission is simple ““ put the important issue of redistricting into the hands of fewer vested interests instead of those who in the past have been allowed to define the terms of their own cartel. Simply put, it’s just wrong for legislators to draw these districts and then run in them.  There needs to be a better way.


If you are sitting around with nothing to do and the zoo is closed, come over to the legislature. You’ll get the same kind of feeling and you won’t have to pay.” Former La. Sen. Dudley LeBlanc

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and on websites throughout the South.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com. The show is televised at http://www.justin.tv/jimbrownusa.

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