Analysis: Public submitting maps for Louisiana redistricting

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As lawmakers ready for a February session to redraw Louisiana’s political districts, advances in technology have added a new wrinkle to the once-a-decade debates, with advocacy groups and people interested in the work submitting their own fully designed map proposals.

In prior redistricting years, the software needed to draw districts wasn’t cheap. But for this latest round of map redesigns, people now have access to free, online sites that can allow them to piece together complete maps and offer them to lawmakers.

Every 10 years with the release of new U.S. Census data, lawmakers rework the maps for seats in the U.S. House, state Senate, state House, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Public Service Commission to account for population shifts and evenly distribute people among districts. Lawmakers are planning to call a special session for the work.

Former House Clerk Alfred “Butch” Speer, who spent decades working as the House’s chief administrative officer before his retirement, said the legislative map-drawing work in the 1980s involved large pieces of paper taped together and placed on the floor for people to build districts. By the 1990s, Speer said new, pricey software allowed for maps to be sketched on computers.

During a public redistricting discussion held this month by the Council for A Better Louisiana, Speer said he doesn’t recall any outside group submitting a full map through the last redistricting cycle a decade ago.

“Nobody undertook the difficult task of building an entire state map because that took an investment of $10,000 to $20,000 to get those programs,” Speer said. “Now, you can sit down, on the internet there’s a place called davesredistricting.org, and you can build whatever map for whatever state you’re interested in.”

The majority-Republican Legislature already has received full map proposals for congressional seats from outside organizations seeking substantial redesigns, particularly people of color and left-leaning groups interested in creating a second majority-Black district among Louisiana’s six seats.

But the outside map offerings won’t necessarily influence what lawmakers decide.

Speer — able to talk more frankly about the redistricting process now that he’s safely ensconced in retirement — expects the Legislature to ignore most requests being made by the general public or advocacy organizations.

Lawmakers will “come up with a balancing act about how they are going to allow people to believe that they’re going to listen to what they say, but what they’re going to do is they’re going to take care of — as much as they can — of their colleagues’ needs,” Speer said.

The former House clerk’s comments came at an event where he sat next to the two lawmakers who lead the House and Governmental Affairs Committee that spearheads the chamber’s redistricting work: Chairman John Stefanski and Vice Chairman Royce Duplessis.

Stefanski and Duplessis joked about Speer’s directness in retirement — and both denied they would ignore the public comments and map proposals being submitted as they travel Louisiana to hold “roadshow” hearings about redistricting.

“I’m taking everything I learn there very seriously,” said Stefanski, a Crowley Republican.

Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, agreed, saying: “We are going to listen to what the public has to say.” But he acknowledged there’s an “inherent flaw in the process” where lawmakers draw their own districts and “self-preservation is a human trait.”

Louisiana’s congressional districts have raised the most outside interest at the roadshow hearings, amid a push to make two majority-minority districts rather than maintaining the current configuration with one majority-Black district and five districts favoring Republicans.

One-third of Louisiana’s more than 4.6 million residents are Black.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards added a recent twist to the debate, saying he backs the creation of a second majority-minority U.S. House district as an issue of fairness. The governor didn’t say if he would veto a map that doesn’t achieve that, but Stefanski said what Edwards will do with his veto pen “is a huge consideration” for the legislative debate.

Still, it’s questionable if the majority-Republican Legislature would agree to sacrifice a safe GOP district and the near-certain ouster of a Republican incumbent in Congress, no matter what outside organizations are suggesting and what maps they’re submitting.

“I’d be shocked to have anybody say that it’s going to be done in this time,” Speer said of a second majority-minority district. “It should be. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be. But there are a lot of pressures on the other side of the scale.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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