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Republican-led committee votes down 5 maps that would add 2nd Black district; see next steps

Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, presents her proposed congressional map to her colleagues during the state's redistricting session. Feb. 4, 2022.
Paul Braun
Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, presents her proposed congressional map to her colleagues during the state's redistricting session. Feb. 4, 2022.

A Republican-controlled Senate committee voted down five proposed maps that would’ve created a second majority-Black congressional district in Louisiana, earning sharp criticism from civil rights groups that have been closely watching the process.

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced a proposal favored by the state’s Republican legislative leaders that would maintain the racial composition of Louisiana’s six congressional districts, which include five majority-white districts held by the GOP and a single majority-Black district traditionally held by Democrats.

All of the votes were 6-3 along partisan lines, with the committee's white, Republican members voting for the leadership’s preferred plan and against the five proposals submitted by Democrats and civil rights groups.

Several other proposals that would create a second majority-Black district remain in the House and Senate, but all would have to clear the Republican-controlled Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that definitively rejected five such proposals it considered this week.

Michael Pernick, redistricting counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the GOP-backed proposals violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars states from gerrymandering districts to dilute the political power of minority racial communities.

“The committe voted favorably on a bill that provides Black voters with only one district out of six in which they have any opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in a state that is one-third Black,” Pernick said.

“And the committe rejected a number of options that not only would have complied with Section 2, but would have been more compact and better respected the principles that the committee claimed to be trying to adhere to.”

Friday’s vote follows two days of legislative hearings in which Republican state lawmakersargued that the Voting Rights Act did not require them to draw a second majority-Black district, that doing so could compromise the one existing majority-Black district in the state, and that the distribution of Black residents across the state prevented them from drawing maps that were compact enough.

“The numbers have to drive the process,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), whochairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and sponsored SB5, the congressional map that won the committee’s approval Friday. “It matters where people live and you can only draw maps to the extent that numbers support them.”

She added that she doesn’t believe the redistricting process needs to create a second majority-Black district.

“Nothing in this section establishes a right to have members of a protected class elected in numbers equal to their proportion of the population,” Hewitt said Thursday, citing a portion of the Voting Rights Act. “So it’s not a foregone conclusion or a right, that you have two out of six districts be minority districts.”

But analysts from a coalition of civil rights groups point out that Hewitt’s proposal, which only tweaks the state’s current congressional map to account for population shifts, is less compact than any of the maps with two minority districts proposed by Senate Democrats.

“I do not believe, and there is too much uncertainty to convince us otherwise, that a second majority minority district can be drawn in Louisiana that is sufficiently compact and would perform as a minority district without greatly diminishing the opportunity to elect the candidate of choice that is currently afforded to the voters in Congressional District 2,” Hewitt said.

Pernick, whose organization collaborated with Democratic state lawmakers to craft the rejected maps that aimed at increasing minority representation, said that uncertainty could have been avoided if lawmakers had ordered an analysis of voting trends in Louisiana to assess the viability of a second majority-Black district.

“There isn’t a shred of data that anybody has presented to support their claim that two majority Black districts wouldn’t perform [for Black-preferred candidates],” Pernick said.

Pernick added that it was “concerning” that Louisiana lawmakers had not ordered the racially polarized voting analysis that is widely considered to be a necessity for lawmakers in the redistricting process.

The NAACP Legal Defense Funds’s own analysis of racially polarized voting, which the organization submitted to the Joint Governmental Affairs Committee in December, shows that the new majority-Black congressional district in each of the maps Democratic state lawmakers used as the basis for their proposals would elect Black-preferred candidates, “...In some cases by 30 points or more,” Pernick said.

“There is no doubt that these districts would perform and we haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that they would not,” Pernick added.

Across the capitol, the House and Governmental Affairs advanced another map proposed by Speaker Clay Schexnayder that would largely maintain the racial makeup of the state’s current congressional districts.

Black lawmakers and civil rights groups said Schexnayder’s map raised some of the same concerns as Hewitt’s.

When asked repeatedly if he considered racial proportionality when crafting his proposal, Schexnayder chose not to answer the question, saying instead that it was, “My attempt to put a map out there that is fair.”

Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee (R-Houma) spoke in favor of the proposal, saying there were several other maps aimed at creating another majority-minority district, but Schexnayder’s prioritized other criteria,

“It aligns with traditional redistricting principles that it keeps the geographic integrity of Louisiana as best it can be done,” Magee said. “The map could not be all things. We have a competition of ideas and competition of factors.”

Magee said those included preserving the shared agricultural interests of the 5th Congressional District, maintaining compactness and ensuring the map had the lowest possible deviation in population size among districts.

Pernick pointed out that only one other proposal, Hewitt’s SB5, was less compact than the House leader’s map, and multiple proposals with two majority-Black districts had been drawn with zero population deviation.

Several House Democrats have filed bills that would add a second majority-Black districts on the state’s congressional map. John Stefanski (R-Crowley), who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, said those bills will be considered on Monday.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.