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Monday, May 13th, 2024

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


If you want to witness political favoritism and inside political wheeling and dealing  at its worst, just witness the mess that has been created by the legislature as well as federal judges in Louisiana.  Dysfunctional politics is about the best way to describe what is happening in the legally required process of reapportioning congressional districts in the Bayou state.

The legislature, by federal law, has to reapportion each congressional district every 10 years. It makes sense, because populations change, and each congressional district should be evenly balanced. So the ball was thrown to the Louisiana legislature and the new governor to come up with a reapportionment plan to take place in the fall elections. And boy did everyone in the process make a mess of the whole effort.

The legislative struggle apparently had two priorities. One to protect current congressmen so they can be easily re-elected. But with one exception. The governor has had a falling out with Republican congressman Garrett Graves, whose district is centered in the Baton Rouge area.  Under the guise of creating a new minority district, the legislature shaped a new territory that meanders all over the state and presents an uphill fight for Graves to be reelected. 

A three judge federal panel voted two to one to throw out the new reapportionment proposal, saying it was drawn strictly to create a minority district. The judges were right. What the legislature did was to create a district that connected predominantly black neighborhoods in and around Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Alexandria, Natchitoches, and Shreveport.  It’s dead wrong to have a district that winds like a snake all over the state.

As syndicated columnist Quinn Hiller wrote this week: “For decades, courts have ruled, with good reason, that district shapes should be reasonably compact, and contiguous, except to take into account  geographical features, such as rivers or mountain ranges, and the districts, where possible, should not divide natural “communities of interest” such as common cultural heritage, or shaped economic bases.”

Having run in statewide elections  on six different occasions, I know from personal experience that voters in northeast Louisiana often have different views on a variety of state issues compared to voters in Cajun country. New Orleans is a world all of its own. Each area of the state should be able to elect a congressman who reflects and votes the views of people that have some common interest. Right now, that’s not the case in the Bayou state.

And just who is the minority that needs to be represented anyway?  African-Americans make up approximately 30% of the state’s population. The fastest growing population groups in the state are Hispanics and citizens with a Vietnamese background. Should they not have some type of representation as a group?  Should legislators be allowed to draw congressional districts that twist like a snake all across the state?

Here’s what we have in Louisiana right now.  In elections, people choose their legislators. But because of how reapportionment has worked, , legislators choose their voters or choose the voters for their favorite congressman.

Just 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. And 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.

.One idea would be to create a Louisiana Fair Reapportionment Practices Commission. Let nominations for its members come from the legislature, the Supreme Court, the good government groups like PAR and CABL, the 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 less 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.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also listen to his weekly podcast at www.datelinelouisiana.com.

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