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How might Louisiana get a 2nd majority Black district? Possibly through legal action

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
Wallis Watkins / WRKF
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The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge.

Civil rights groups aren’t ruling out legal action if Louisiana’s GOP-controlled legislature fails to add a second “majority-minority” congressional district in the upcoming redistricting session.

Republican legislative leaders have so far shown no interest in adding a second “majority-minority” district, as the change would likely give Democrats another seat in Congress.

But civil rights groups, led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said a recent court victory in Alabama over similar concerns about redistricting efforts diluting the political power of Black voters should encourage state lawmakers to take their concerns seriously — or else wind up in court.

“It’s a basic principle that in a state that is one-third Black it is deeply concerning when those voters only have an opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice in one-sixth of those districts,” Michael Pernick, NAACP LDF redistricting counsel, said. “We believe that a second majority-Black district is likely required by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

The Voting Rights Act prohibits states from using gerrymandering to dilute and weaken the voting power of minority racial communities, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has sued state legislatures in South Carolina and Alabama over maps the group believed to be unconstitutional.

Last week a federal court in Alabama ruled that the state’s newly drawn congressional map violated the Voting Rights Act by including only one district where Black voters would have a chance of electing a candidate of their choice.

“The Alabama case foreshadows what may happen if Louisiana fails to enact a map that complies with Section 2,” Pernick said, adding that the underrepresentation of Black voters in Louisiana may be even more severe.

Pernick’s organization is part of a coalition of 16 civil rights organizations that has pushed for better minority representation in the state’s congressional delegation, state legislature, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission and state Supreme Court.

The coalition, which also includes the ACLU of Louisiana, the League of Women Voters, Fair Districts Louisiana, Louisiana Progress and others, submitted more than a dozen proposed district maps to the legislature’s Joint Governmental Affairs Committee.

When lawmakers discussed those proposals earlier this month, many GOP members of the committee were critical of proposals aimed at increasing minority representation and openly explored ways to redraw the state’s congressional maps without including a second majority-Black district.

Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said that across Louisiana history people of color have been misrepresented at every level of government, and state lawmakers now have an opportunity and an obligation to remedy that. Whether or not they choose to do so remains to be seen.

“The law is clear,” Kaiser said. “[Lawmakers] have heard plenty and they’ve seen proposals to achieve appropriate levels of minority representation. At this point, we’re all just waiting to see whether they’ll fulfill those obligations.”

State lawmakers will convene the special redistricting session at 5 p.m. Tuesday and must adjourn no later than Feb. 20. The state Senate released a tentative schedule for the session on Monday that had lawmakers completing their work on Feb. 5, sparking a fresh round of concerns among civil rights groups who fear they will not have enough time to adequately vet lawmakers' proposed maps on such a compressed timeline.

Peter Robins-Brown, advocacy director of Louisiana Progress, also said it seemed unlikely that the Republican-controlled legislature would draw maps that had the potential to undermine their influence in the statehouse and in Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

“We like to think of redistricting as being about the high principles of democracy, but a lot of times it’s about power,” Robins-Brown said. “The more drastically you reshape the power dynamics, the harder it is to get people on board.”

A recent poll commissioned by Louisiana Progress and conducted by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling found that 59% of Louisianans did not think lawmakers should redraw district lines that protect incumbents. Additionally, it found that 78% of Louisianans wanted more competitive districts and 58% said the new maps should reflect the state's racial diversity.

“I think what we heard over and over again is that people want the process to be fair, and they want the legislature to follow the numbers,” Kaiser said. “It’s an idea that cuts across parties and political ideology.”

Even groups that have remained neutral in redistricting discussions so far are now acknowledging the public’s desire for more racially-equitable district maps.

Steven Procopio, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, has not endorsed any of the plans submitted by the public and has remained neutral in early discussions of the process. Last week, he told the Baton Rouge Press Club that drawing a second majority-minority district may prove technically difficult given the legal strictures of the redistricting process, but failure to do so would be tough to explain to the public.

“If they don’t do it, they owe everyone an explanation on why they’re not doing it,” Procopio said. “Everyone’s looking at this, and this is a major issue. They need to have a serious review of what’s going on.”

Procopio predicts the issue will end up “sorted out in court.”

But Robins-Brown said he would not rule out the possibility of Republican legislative leaders striking a deal with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to increase minority representation and avoid miring the state in a costly legal battle.

“Predicting what’s going to happen in politics is almost always a fool’s errand, especially when it comes to redistricting,” Robbins Brown said. “I think the only thing that seems guaranteed is that it’s going to get messy.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.