Redistricting tricky, expert cautions

October 2, 2009

ALEXANDRIA - A legislative redistricting expert warned lawmakers Thursday of politics that could interfere with the drawing of new election district lines that meet constitutional muster.

"Significant interest groups and individuals are going to be coming to you trying to affect how the process works," Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp told about 20 lawmakers gathered for what has been billed as a " Redistricting 101" class.

"You are going to be asked to vote against the wishes of your friends, your colleagues, even some of your (political) party members," he said.

Eighty percent of redistricting - a redrawing of election district lines to adjust for population shifts - is the technical, legal side of the process, Koepp said.

That was the subject of the training session.

The workshop for lawmakers and their staff initially was to be held behind closed doors but it was opened to the public Wednesday. It is scheduled to continue today.

Legislative staff stressed that lawmakers would be on a fast track to get the remap of the Legislature, Public Service Commission and state Board of Elementary and Education done based on the 2010 census in time for fall 2011 elections.

The lawmakers draw congressional district lines too but those elections aren't until 2012.

"You'll have six weeks to make a whole lot of complicated decisions," House Clerk Butch Speer said, referring to the time from when census data will arrive and legislative approval must come.

"It's balancing and juggling and calculus and political tug of war."

House Senior Legislative Analyst Patricia Lowrey-Dufour said the Louisiana Legislature is expected to get the census numbers needed to start the redistricting work by the second week of February 2011.

Louisiana is one of four states with looming elections, and the U.S. Census Bureau is sensitive that the state needs the data as soon as possible, she said.

Lowrey-Dufour said plans are to hold public hearings around the state to inform the public of population changes and their potential effect on the shaping of election districts.

A 10- to 17-day special session would be held prior to the 2011 regular legislative session, with a goal of getting approved election districts to the U.S. Justice Department for its scrutiny no later than May 2, she said.

The Justice Department must "pre-clear" the districts before they can be used to ensure election laws are being complied with, primarily the Voting Rights Act.

"Given our track record, it has been difficult to get pre-clearance, period," Speer said.

Justice approval must be received by Aug. 29 to meet the fall election deadline, she said.

House and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, said the Alexandria meeting is the first of "several training opportunities" in the coming months. He said sessions will be held on college campuses throughout the state to take advantage of broadcast capabilities so the public can participate.

Lowrey-Dufour, Koepp, Speer and legislative demographer Bill Blair reviewed laws covering the redistricting work, court opinions that affect how the laws are applied, historical data and maps showing changes in election districts over the most-recent decades, and potential for changes based on preliminary census data.

The preliminary data indicates that Louisiana would lose one of its seven congressional seats.

In addition, election districts for the Louisiana House and Senate will change, with the Baton Rouge area likely to pick up legislative seats because of population shifts away from the New Orleans area.

Lowrey-Dufour said the census data clearly show that Louisiana continues to grow at a pace much less than the nation and the Southern average. And if the preliminary 2008 census data hold, she said, there would be no growth.

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