The Louisiana Legislature adjourned on Wednesday, April 13 from a special session that used new census population numbers to redraw the district boundaries for Congress, the Public Service Commission and the state House and Senate.
It was a tough and highly political session because legislators had to come to grips with the disruption of communities after Hurricane Katrina and the downsizing of Louisiana’s allocation of U.S. House representatives from seven to six.
The new maps were drawn but questions remain about whether the federal Justice Department will approve the plans and whether court challenges might send the lawmakers back to the drawing board.
In the meantime, the reviews of that session have been unflattering. Specific parts of the plans have been criticized on the basis of racial and regional discrimination. Much has been said about what the Legislature did, but a large and longer-term concern is how they did it.
The basic problem is that in Louisiana state lawmakers draw their own political districts. And when they redraw congressional districts, generally they do what the longest-serving incumbent congressmen and the dominant political party wants.
Incumbents were well treated. Despite dramatic shifts in population within the state these past 10 years, little more than a handful of incumbent lawmakers among the 144 legislative districts face the prospect of running against one of their colleagues this fall under the redrawn maps.
As some state lawmakers themselves admit, the process is fixated on incumbent and political party protection.
That custom is unfortunate, because even though many legislators worked hard and conducted themselves in an open and transparent manner, the session in the end eroded public confidence in our state’s political system.
This is largely the fault of the process: Under the current system, we give the Legislature a set of rules and a playing field in which the sport of incumbent and party protection is the game to be played. If you suit up team members for a baseball game and put them on a diamond-shaped baseball field, you can’t then expect them to play football and score touchdowns.
So the next best step is clear: We need to change the way we map political districts in Louisiana. Now is the time to move in this direction and put a new process in place for the next redistricting cycle.
This new process could take the form of a commission or some type of redistricting authority other than the Legislature.
A number of states use redistricting panels. The American Bar Association has recommended that all states adopt independent redistricting commissions. Around the world, other nations with representative forms of government do not let their politicians draw their own district lines.
Even if the Louisiana Legislature kept the lead role as the remapping authority, the system still could be improved by putting some non-legislative decision-makers into the process. For example, the committees that conduct hearings, take public comment and draft the redistricting bills could be infused with independent-minded participants without a direct political stake in the outcome.
Creating a new system will not be easy. There is no standard off-the-shelf policy. What works in Iowa — where legislative staff draw the lines with nearly geometric guidelines — or California — where a virtually random assembly of citizens has the job — might not work here. But we can learn from other states.
There are multiple ways to structure and operate an independent commission and various steps in the remapping process that could be changed. Some structures encourage the same incumbent-protection practices that we need to avoid. So there’s a lot of homework to be done.
That’s why, if we can’t move boldly in this direction right away, the state should set up a high-profile team, including legislators, to examine the alternatives and report back its recommendations early next year.
Based on the valuable lessons from the recent legislative session and the growing body of experience with alternative systems around the country, Louisiana now has an opportunity to create its own model and make a positive statement about its political image.
Most of all, we need to improve public confidence in the political process. A serious examination of our redistricting system is the place to start.