Louisiana redistricting 2022: Welcome to Vegas, Opie

January 24, 2022 9:51 am
Louisiana Capitol Building

(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)

When the Louisiana Legislature convenes for its redistricting session Feb. 1, voter advocacy groups will push for an additional minority-majority district for the state in Congress as well as greater representation in the Legislature and on the state school board, Supreme Court and Public Service Commission.

Federal law requires each respective district to have as close to the same population as possible. But it’s far from simple math to come up with numbers that work. Districts should be compact, have fair racial representation and protect communities of interest. You’ll hear these terms frequently during debates in the redistricting session, and there will be different interpretations of what they mean.    

Few people in Louisiana are more familiar with this process than former state Rep. Charles Emile “Peppi” Bruneau. For more than three decades, the Republican represented New Orleans in the Louisiana House. He was also the longtime chair of the House committee tasked with redistricting after every decennial Census count.

It was with that gravitas that Bruneau approached the microphone first earlier this month at the University of New Orleans, one of the stops on the Joint Governmental Affairs Committee’s statewide redistricting roadshow. The travelling forum provided citizens with a chance to submit their suggestions for redrawing political boundaries.

Bruneau acknowledged the hard work of legislators and staff in attendance and implored them to leave intact House District 94, which he represented in an earlier iteration and where he still lives. The district encompasses the conservative-leaning Lakeview neighborhood in New Orleans and stretches west to Causeway Boulevard in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

“It’s kind of like Mayberry in the midst of Las Vegas, and we’d kind of like to keep it that way,” Bruneau said.

I live in District 94, and I’m not so sure the Mayberry analogy fits. Crime in some portions is far more than Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife could handle, and the woeful infrastructure could knock the nuts out of Aunt Bea’s butterscotch pecan pie. 

By my assessment, District 94 is a mix of idyllic Stepford, mysterious Twin Peaks and Lyon Estates subdivision, the gritty, graffitied version before Marty McFly went “Back to the Future.” 

No matter what lens you see it through, District 94 is not alone in having staunch defenders like Bruneau who want lawmakers to use light touch in redistricting. Throughout the state, communities will argue their political boundaries shouldn’t change so that they can retain their voting strength. 

But what if that strength comes at the cost of weakening someone else? 

Beyond redistricting, state lawmakers also have the power to address flaws in the system that lead to inherent unfairness. One example is prison gerrymandering.  

Orange isn’t the new black. It’s a convenient shade of blue when a red district needs to diversify.

When the Census counts people at correctional centers, they are assigned the address of the facility where they are being held rather than their home address. When it’s time to redistrict, prison populations can be factored into local voting precincts in 34 states, including Louisiana, that allow prison gerrymandering.

This gives the impression that the incarcerated have a voice on Election Day when in fact they have little to none. Felons cannot vote in Louisiana (they only recently had that right restored pending the completion of their sentence, parole or probation), and it’s commonplace for state prisons and some local jails to hold individuals from around the state. So even though they can’t vote back home, they are being counted in terms of representation at the prison location.  

A parish with a large state or federal correctional center might have a majority-minority district on paper, but in reality the only people with a say in the outcome of elections are those outside the prison gates. Back in the incarcerated person’s district of origin, there’s one less person being counted.

The practice of prison gerrymandering has historically favored Republicans. People of color account for the majority of disenfranchised voters behind bars. Even though they can’t vote, they are still counted for redistricting. 

Orange isn’t the new black. It’s a convenient shade of blue when a red district needs to diversify.    

Eleven states have approved laws to end prison gerrymandering and use the home address of incarcerated individuals for redistricting. Five other states have similar proposals in the works. Louisiana, which has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, needs to join them.

In Mayberry, Otis Campbell could come and go from the town jail as he pleased. I like to think Sheriff Taylor could always count on his vote.

Louisiana won’t and shouldn’t go that soft on crime and punishment, but it can take a big step toward fairness in elections by eliminating prison gerrymandering.  

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator. He can be reached at [email protected] 


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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune |, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.