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State Senate redistricting map gets proposed, but it could violate Voting Rights Act

Paul Braun
Senate Pres. Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) proposes a new configuration of State Senate districts to lawmakers on the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. February 2, 2022.

Louisiana lawmakers opened debate on the redrawing of the state’s legislative districts Wednesday, as civil rights groups and members of the public continue to clamor for more minority representation among the state’s elected officials.

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee considered two new maps for the state Senate: one that would add three new majority-Black Senate districts and another that would largely maintain the status quo.

The members of the Republican-dominated committee seem poised to advance a proposal from Senate President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) when it reconvenes Thursday. But as it’s currently drawn, Cortez’s map would not give Black voters any new opportunities to send their preferred candidate to the state Senate.

The push to secure a second majority-Black congressional district has taken center stage in the lead up to the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, but civil rights groups have argued that the state legislature is also out of balance.

Despite the state’s population being one-third Black, roughly one-quarter of the state’s 144 House and Senate seats are occupied by people of color. A coalition of civil rights groups led by the ACLU of Louisiana have said the state would have to “significantly increase” minority representation to come into compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

Those groups have lined up behind SB17 by Sen. Ed Price (D-Gonzales), who proposed to add three minority opportunity districts across the state in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

Even as civil rights groups called foul, Cortez contended that packing minority voters into the small number of districts they currently hold is the best way to ensure that Black voters in those districts can safely elect the candidates of their choice.

He reasoned that spreading those voters out into districts that have a slim majority of minority voters — somewhere in the low 50% range — could dilute minority representation. Because if those districts are more competitive, lower turnout among minority communities could result in fewer minority candidates being elected, Cortez said.

“Fifty percent plus one gives you a majority-minority population, but if they only turn out at a 30% or 35% rate and the other population turns out at 45% or 50% for an election… they won’t elect the candidate of their choice,” Cortez said. “That’s a violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

Cortez also argued that drawing majority-minority districts could lead lawmakers to disregard other “communities of interest” that federal redistricting laws encourage states to keep intact.

“I could draw the map with a bunch of 50.1% [majority-Black] districts, but they would go all over, they would look like spiders,” Cortez said. “It would not pass muster. It would violate every other principle of communities of interest.”

Chris Kaiser of the ACLU of Louisiana said his organization determined that the Senate could add as many as four additional majority-Black seats while maintaining compact districts. He opposed Cortez’s proposal and hinted that it could prompt groups like his to sue.

“Because SB1 basically preserves the status quo, we believe that it really doesn’t represent the increase in Black representation that we need and would likely violate Section 2 if it were enacted as it stands,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser added that he did not share Cortez’s concerns surrounding the creation of new minority opportunity districts with slim Black majorities.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires that communities of color be given the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice — not a guarantee.

Kaiser said it was incumbent upon the legislature to analyze historical voting patterns and turnout trends in communities of color to determine whether or not a district with a slim Black majority would actually result in more Black-preferred candidates winning seats in the state Senate.

“If you’re going to make the assertion that we can’t draw an additional majority-minority district because it won’t perform as one, then there should be some evidence to back that up,” Kaiser said.

The ACLU completed one such analysis when crafting the state legislative maps it submitted to the legislature. Kaiser said his organization had a “high degree of confidence” that new majority-Black state Senate districts they proposed in Baton Rouge, Jefferson Parish and Shreveport — which closely resemble districts proposed by Price — had the potential to produce successful Black-preferred candidates as long as Black voters made up at least 52% of the district’s population.

Each of the new minority-opportunity districts proposed in Price’s SB17 had a Black population of at least 53%.

“I hope anybody that runs would be a hard worker, who can get out there and turn out the vote,” Price said. “But if we don’t provide this opportunity, we will never know.”

Price’s proposal faces an uncertain future on a committee with six Republicans and three Democrats.

The panel of lawmakers agreed to delay the vote on the two bills until Thursday to give lawmakers and the public ample time to analyze them.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.