The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee reviews a state Senate redistricting map Feb. 2, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
At the heart of political redistricting is the Voting Rights Act, federal legislation approved in 1965 to prohibit discrimination in elections. So when it comes to redrawing political boundaries, it’s not entirely surprising to hear those with a vested interest in the outcome discuss the possibility of lawsuits as a way to ensure the outcome complies with federal law.
But in the case of the Louisiana Legislature’s redistricting efforts in 2022, it appears lawsuits were a foregone conclusion ever before demographers put the first pen to map. Instead of making a concerted effort to accurately reflect the state’s changing racial demographics, Republican leaders in charge of the process have taken a path to bolster their chances in court. Accurately representing the state’s minority population has not even reached the status of afterthought.
The tenor was set in December when legislative leaders hired BakerHostetler, a law firm specializing in election law and redistricting. Outside expertise is commonly used when state legislatures tackle reapportionment and other complex matters. But as we’ve reported, the only lawmakers with access to the firm’s guidance are Senate President Page Cortez, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and two fellow Republicans who chair the committees tasked with drawing new districts.
Even then, outside legal help is justified if meant to guide a process that ensures fair representation in the maps being drawn. But Louisiana’s GOP-led redistricting effort thus far doesn’t give the impression the majority party ever had any intent adding minority districts to reflect the state’s current makeup. Instead, authors of prevailing maps point out why they believe their offerings meet Voting Rights Act standards and those with additional minority districts do not.
Arguments against Democratic-sponsored maps have been specious. Republicans argue additional minority districts would dilute Black voting strength, referencing research into racial voting block data they have yet to produce. Yet when Black lawmakers insist a new minority district will have a better chance of electing a minority representative, Republicans ask them for supporting statistics they themselves can’t provide for their own maps.
That takes us back to BakerHostetler’s role. Sen. Sharon Hewitt, chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, referenced the firm’s analysis of racially polarized voting data for Louisiana during a redistricting debate this week. When asked to share the findings, the Slidell Republican said she was told concrete results weren’t available because the data was too “noisy” and “scattered.”
This, along with the fact that only four lawmakers have access to the law firm, certainly undermines the credibility of the GOP-backed bills advancing through the Legislature.
BakerHostetler’s guidance goes further. Last summer, one of its attorneys, Kate McKnight (who’s advising Louisiana GOP leaders at the Capitol) sat on a National Conference of State Legislatures panel on redistricting to share advice to some 450 state lawmakers, staff and stakeholders from around the country. One point she stressed was to be mindful of communication during the map-making process, explaining that what is written rather than spoken can prove damaging in court.
“I will always talk about email hygiene. Please,” McKnight said, according to an article on the NCSL website. “If you can meet with someone in person, do that. If you can’t do that, call them. If you absolutely must, send them an email (that says): ‘Call me.’”
This statement, or at least the spirit of it, flies against the open, transparent process Louisiana lawmakers promised for redistricting. Plus, it seems rather self-serving to the firm that it leads to maps that voter advocacy groups are certain to challenge in court.
That takes us back to the access issue: Why can’t all but a select few lawmakers obtain information from BakerHostetler? With lawsuits already filed over redistricting in Louisiana, GOP leaders in the Legislature can technically cite attorney-client privilege.
But rather than fall back hard on that stance, it seems another tactic has emerged in recent days. It’s been increasingly heard from GOP lawmakers as media reports shine more light on the BakerHostetler arrangement.
Black lawmakers, likely setting the stage for the lawsuits voting rights groups will bring, have consistently asked Republican sponsors during debates over maps if they attempted to add minority districts. GOP legislators haven’t provided a direct yes or no response, which leads to more questions about the information they used to draw districts that maintain the racial status quo.
Knowing few have access to BakerHostetler’s guidance, Republicans are now asking whether Black lawmakers have consulted with legislative staffers about their concerns. It feels as though the GOP wants to be able to say – ultimately in a courtroom – that the information was available all along, just not directly from the law firm.
This way of doing the people’s business conflicts with the frequent call from lawmakers to bridge partisan differences and find common ground. The next time they actually do, it will ring hollow based on how redistricting has unfolded.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to live with the results for at least the next 10 years.
Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator. He can be reached at [email protected]
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