Redistricting issue raised

Marsha Shuler
May 6, 2010

Members of the Legislature's Black Caucus on Wednesday began questioning the makeup of committees that will redraw legislative and other election district lines next year.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, asked U.S. Justice Department officials how to go about complaining of "lack of inclusion" in the redistricting process.

"How important is it if members - if they have concerns - to provide information" for Justice to use in its analysis of whether plans are non-discriminatory, Peterson asked the federal officials who gave a presentation on redistricting to a joint session of the Legislature.

"Err on the side of inclusion," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Perez said.

"We look at information from all," Robert Berman, a deputy chief in Justice's Civil Rights Division. "It all goes into the mix. It's part of the picture."

The four Justice officials are experts in the Voting Rights Act, which ensures remapping the districts doesn't result in discrimination.

The Justice Department must approve any legislative, congressional or other election district plan crafted by the Legislature.

House and Senate Governmental Affairs Committees are the first stop in the once every decade remap process in which election districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts since the last census.

Both lawmakers drew attention to the state House committee.

The 19-member House panel has four black members.

There are 12 Republicans, six Democrats and one no party member.

That redrawing activity will occur early next year with new districts to be used in fall 2011 elections.

Perez encouraged lawmakers to use an inclusive and transparent process.

"The more inclusive the better," Perez said.

House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, noted the "unique situation" that lawmakers will face because of the population displacement in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina.

Tucker said in the past there have been more majority black legislative districts in the New Orleans area than anywhere in the state.

Now that population is more broadly dispersed and he wondered how Justice would look at that situation.

"We will have to wait and see what the data shows," Perez said. He said it is critically important that people respond to the 2010 census.

"In terms of the difference in population, our analysis looks at the situation as it exists today. What is happening on the ground with the population," Berman said.

"The fact that the area may have had 15,000, 20,000, 30,000 people 10 years ago is not part of our calculation," he said.