Redistricting 2010: Reforming the Process of Distributing Political Power

Publication Date: February 2009

Publisher: Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, inc.

Author(s): Ann Williamson-Heath

Research Area: Government; Politics; Population and demographics

Keywords: Apportionment; Redistricting

Type: Report

Coverage: Louisiana


The U.S. Constitution requires that a national population census be taken every 10 years to determine how many congressional representatives each state should have.

Thereafter, census data are reported to the U.S. President and individual states as required by federal law. Those data provide the basis for drawing congressional and state legislative district maps.

The next reapportionment and redistricting cycle will be significant for Louisiana. Since the last census count in 2000, Louisiana has lost a significant amount of its populace to other states. Further, residents who have remained in Louisiana have moved away from the once densely populated New Orleans area toward other parts of the state. The state's inability to maintain population or grow as fast as its peers in the new millennium, combined with the devastating storms of 2005, has all but ensured the loss of one congressional seat in 2010 and the transfer of some state legislative power from the New Orleans area to faster growing parishes.

Drawing district lines in 2010 will be politically charged; because of population changes, protecting minority districts and balancing political power will be bigger issues than they have been in the past.

Along with 15 other states, Louisiana's district maps must be pre-approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or federal courts before taking effect. The state's history of voting inequities for minorities creates an air of mistrust in government and the state's redistricting process.

Completely eliminating political influence or potential abuse of power from the process is not likely. However, Louisiana can transform its redistricting model into one that will have less potential for conflict of interest, be more transparent and accountable to the public, and place greater controls on those who have the power to move district lines.

Reapportionment is the redistribution of congressional representatives among the states based on each decennial census, while redistricting is the redrawing of the states' congressional and legislative district maps to reflect population changes. At the federal level, each state is guaranteed two U.S. Senate seats and one U.S. House seat. The remaining 385 House seats are reapportioned every 10 years based on each state's population in proportion to the nation overall.

Like 27 other states, Louisiana relies solely on its state legislators for congressional and legislative redistricting and gives them great power over the process, which is loosely defined by state House and Senate rules. In Louisiana, district lines for members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Public Service Commission (PSC) and state Supreme Court also are determined by the Legislature. Yet few legislative practices offer greater potential for conflict of interest or less accountability to the people than redistricting.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that even the most fundamental rights are illusory if the right to vote is compromised. As such, government works to ensure that all persons are afforded an equal opportunity to vote and participate in government. For the election process to be genuine it must be competitive, where any person has the chance to run for office and be elected. It is easy to overlook or misunderstand the impact that redistricting can have on electoral competition. However, decisions made during the mapping process can shape citizen representation and political control far into the future.

Although modern redistricting has been made more objective through the use of consultants and redistricting software, bodies responsible for redistricting still have great power to affect the types of people who can be elected by crafting districts that favor some more than others. It is imperative that redistricting be entrusted to those who are not directly affected by its outcomes and that the process be well controlled to limit the freedom that line drawers are given.

Certain redistricting models are better than others in terms of independence from political manipulation. In an effort to depoliticize the process, one state entrusts redistricting to nonpartisan legislative staff, 13 states give primary responsibility to appointed boards or commissions and eight states use commissions in an advisory or backup role.

Nationwide, there is a growing interest in removing legislatures from the redistricting process. Since 2005, 18 of the 28 states that use only their legislatures for redistricting have tried to create independent redistricting commissions or to expand the duties of existing state commissions (used for other purposes) to include the task of redistricting.

Redistricting commissions are not necessarily more or less effective than legislatures in terms of avoiding litigation. Creating maps that no group will challenge is unlikely. Regardless of who participates in the line drawing process, litigation can take several years to resolve and redistricting bodies may spend as much time justifying their plans as they did creating them. However, given Louisiana's past treatment of minorities, current population shifts and recent battles over ethics reform, redistricting stakes will be higher this time.

The state should seize this opportunity to upgrade its business-as-usual approach to drawing district lines. Entrusting redistricting to an independent body that will not benefit directly from the lines drawn clearly is a better option in terms of enhancing citizen confidence and building a legacy of public trust. Further, implementing a more definitive, tightly controlled and transparent process can significantly increase the chance for the state's plans to survive future legal scrutiny.

This report offers an overview of redistricting processes nationwide and recommends the following improvements to Louisiana's redistricting method:

Recommendation 1: Assign the task of congressional and legislative redistricting to an independent commission, whose powers, duties and redistricting principles are firmly established in law.

Recommendation 2: Require all commission meetings, documents, communications and work product to be subject to Louisiana's open meetings and public records laws, as well as posted and archived on the commission's Web site.

Recommendation 3: Begin the assignment of redistricting power immediately to ensure a ready and able commission for the next redistricting cycle.