Image source: U.S. Census Bureau
With the legislature’s first redistricting meeting approaching, some lawmakers and interested citizens are hoping to make critical changes to the maps that define Louisiana’s political boundaries.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its long-awaited, updated population numbers from around the country, showing Louisiana experienced sluggish growth of just 2.5% over the last decade — well below most of the nation.
The population growth across the state was uneven. The state followed the national trend of populations shifting from rural to more urban areas. Several of South Louisiana’s metropolitan parishes and suburban areas grew at levels near or beyond the national average of 6.3%.
The parishes with the most growth include Orleans at nearly 12% and its bedroom communities: St. Tammany at 13%, Tangipahoa at 10%, and St. Bernard at 22%. Other significant jumps came from Ascension at 18%, West Baton Rouge at 14%, Bossier at 10%, and Livingston at 11%.
Meanwhile the northern half of the state, aside from Shreveport’s Bossier Parish, generally experienced population declines since the last census in 2010.
When it comes to redistricting though, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) said, “it’s really the body count that matters.” Although St. Bernard had what seems like explosive growth of nearly 22%, it did not actually gain as many residents as other parishes.
“In terms of people they did not grow as much as St. Tammany or Orleans or Ascension,” Hewitt said. “Those parishes grew a lot more in terms of people.”
State lawmakers are supposed to take these numbers, as well as other factors such as minority representation, into account when they draw Louisiana’s new political seats for Congress, the state Legislature, Public Service Commission, and state Supreme Court and state school board.
That process is expected to begin in mid-September and be finalized early next year, said Hewitt, who will help oversee it as chairwoman of the Louisiana Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Although Louisiana’s population may not have grown much, it has changed in ways that could shift the state’s political climate slightly away from favoring majority-White Republican candidates, according to Stephen Kearney with Fair Districts Louisiana, a nonpartisan citizen redistricting advocacy.
Kearney said there is a lot of talk in political circles that Louisiana could get a new congressional map with two minority districts instead of one. Despite making up nearly one-third of the state’s population, Black residents are only represented by one congressional district and one state supreme court district.
Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) said he expects greater minority representation will be the primary changes made to the maps during this round of redistricting.
“If we’re going to be fair and follow the numbers, it certainly requires us to have more than one (district),” James said.
Some Republican lawmakers are not so certain. Hewitt and fellow Republican Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) said the goal is to try to draw equal population totals among districts. Stefanski will help lead the redistricting process with Hewitt as chairman of the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
For state Senate districts, that means drawing a map of 39 districts, each with a population close to 119,430 people. A state House map should have 105 districts, each with close to 44,360, Hewitt said.
“I want legal, fair, by-the-numbers districts,” Stefanski said. “Redistricting is about change. Now exactly what those changes will look like, we won’t really know until we get the numbers and really drill down into them.”
The GOP has a super-majority in the Louisiana Senate but not in the House, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has veto authority for any maps passed by the legislature. That means the Democrats should have some ability to push back on political maps that favor Republicans, even though Republicans control both legislative chambers.
Kearney, the citizen advocate, said many people he has spoken with would like Louisiana to have more competitive districts — meaning districts that aren’t dominated by the same candidate or the same party every election cycle.
“In Louisiana we have basically none of those,” Kearney said. “I think democracy would be improved if we had more districts where a conservative and liberal candidate would fight it out.”
Politicians are not the only ones who can draw Louisiana’s political boundaries. Although the legislature often draws their own maps, they also consider maps proposed by the public. Fair Districts Louisiana uses a sophisticated map-drawing tool available online. The group is also actively seeking public submissions of political districts, Kearney said.
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