A new plan for districts

Advocate, The (Baton Rouge, LA) - Sunday, February 27, 2011
Every decade, the Legislature has to redraw the boundaries of its own districts as well as those for Louisiana's congressional seats and other state election districts. 

And as per tradition, the Legislature, particularly for its own members in the House and Senate, will be looking out for the political interests of legislators, their regions and the state - in that order. 

The good news, as both the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council report, is that there are rules for redistricting. 

The new districts - whether for the Legislature itself, for Congress or other bodies - must be more or less equal in size, and meet requirements for "majority-minority" districts as set out by the federal Voting Rights Act. 

And the final product must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department in Washington to ensure that the Voting Rights Act is followed. 

All that said, most of the discussion in the House and Senate is about how the new lines affect the political futures of the incumbent members of the chambers. Removing a precinct that's heavily Democratic from a district might help a Republican challenger, for example. 

That is why redistricting is so often called a process of politicians choosing their voters, instead of the other way around. 

There is a better way, despite the seeming unlikelihood of idealism winning in the political arena. A number of states, most recently and notably Florida and California, have joined a few others in creating a more nonpolitical process. 

In some variation on the theme, a nonpolitical panel would draw the lines according to the rules - but not according to where incumbent members live or where their political oxen are gored. And the House and Senate must then adopt the entire plan on an up-or-down vote so members can't use amendments to help themselves or hurt others. 

It's too late, according to the Public Affairs Research Council, for the Legislature to get the reform religion and emulate those states this year. 

Louisiana is one of three states with elections this year, meaning our state's district lines must be redrawn in next month's special session and sent off for Justice Department review. That takes time, and qualifying for the fall elections begins Sept. 6. 

Still, as PAR noted in a report last week, the lawmakers at least can put some pressure this year on their successors in 2020, by adopting a more nonpolitical process for future redistricting. 

"Priorities should be placed on the best interests of the electorate and their communities rather than on the protection of incumbents and partisan influence," the PAR report said. "While it is too late to create a new authority to oversee the current round of redistricting, the state should move sooner rather than later to establish an independent commission to redraw the lines after the next Census in 2020." 

It's simply not appropriate that those with direct political interests be the ones who are making the rules of the game in redistricting. 

For this year, CABL has another wish: "Above all, the process should be fully open and all plans should be vetted in public. No last-minute shenanigans as we too often see during normal legislative sessions." 

Also, a lot to ask for.