Redistricting Lagniappe: The Fight for a Second Majority-Black District in Louisiana

A blue background with a map of Louisiana in the middle. On the left side of the map, there are Black activists from the civil rights movment marching. On the right side of the map, there are modern day Black activists marching for voting rights.

In the fall of 2021, members of the Louisiana Legislature embarked on a “Redistricting Roadshow” to hear from voters before they began to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps. Over four months, legislators from the House and Senate Governmental Affairs Committees heard hours of testimony and received numerous emails concerning the creation of a second majority-Black congressional district.

Brenda Shepard Nelson, a resident of Monroe, reiterated the significance of civic participation and fair representation in her testimony before legislators: “My parents understood the importance of voting. For you see they lived at a time where they could not vote. During my mother’s last days she insisted in going to the polls and voting for the person she felt would best represent our community… I have never missed an opportunity to vote, and I do not want my options to vote to be hampered by unfair drawing of district lines.” 

The calls from voters and organizations were not new or without reason. During the 2011 redistricting process, Black legislators submitted multiple proposals featuring a second majority-Black district. The proposals were rejected by the Legislature and threatened with a veto by then Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). After the release of the 2020 census, the data emboldened community activists and voters to advocate for maps that represented the changing demographics of the state. Louisiana has the second highest percentage of Black residents in the country — nearly one-third of the state’s population. Yet, the state has only one Black member of Congress — the fifth Black person to represent the state in Congress since Reconstruction. 

Before Louisiana legislators gathered for a special legislative session to draw new maps, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) expressed support for the addition of a second majority-minority district. Former State Rep. Ted James (D) also pushed for a second majority-Black district considering that Black people made up a third of the state’s population. He boiled his argument down to the simple mantra: “One-third of six is two.”

Despite the outcry from voters, organizations and state officials, both the state Senate and state House proposed maps with only one majority-Black district. Again, Black legislators put forth alternative proposals with two majority-Black districts, but they were ignored. Instead, the Legislature approved a map with one majority-Black district. Edwards vetoed the map stating: “This map is simply not fair to the people of Louisiana and does not meet the standards set forth in the federal Voting Rights Act. The Legislature should immediately begin the work of drawing a map that ensures Black voices can be properly heard in the voting booth. It can be done and it should be done.” The Legislature, mainly along racial and party lines, overrode the veto on March 30, 2022.

Immediately after the Legislature overrode the veto, pro-voting parties sued over the new congressional map. 

In March 2022, the Louisiana NAACP, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and Black voters filed a lawsuit challenging Louisiana’s new congressional map. A similar lawsuit was filed by another group of Black voters. Both lawsuits were consolidated under Ardoin v. Robinson. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the Legislature diluted the voting power of Black voters by “packing” them into the 2nd Congressional District — the state’s only majority-Black district — and spreading other Black voters throughout predominantly white districts in violation of the Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs asked the court to block the new congressional map and order the Legislature to draw another map with a second majority-Black district ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The Legislature’s presiding officers — both Republican white men— quickly moved to intervene in the litigation to defend the maps claiming they “enacted the challenged plans pursuant to a mandate of the U.S. Constitution and would be subject to any remedy this Court issues.” The state of Louisiana also moved to intervene through Attorney General Jeff Landry (R). 

On June 6, 2022, in a 152-page order, the court granted the pro-voting groups’ request to temporarily block the Legislature’s map and ordered the Legislature to enact a remedial map with a second majority-Black district in two weeks. 

Republicans engaged in egregious delay tactics in defiance of the court and the needs of Black voters.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a second attempt from Alabama Republicans to defy court orders and keep their illegal map in place. Republican officials in Louisiana have copied the same playbook, “delaying implementation of a compliant congressional map and then declaring that it is simply too late for implementation to occur.”

Immediately following the district court order blocking Louisiana’s congressional map last summer, Republicans appealed the district court’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asked both the 5th Circuit and lower court to pause the order while their appeal was ongoing. Both courts denied the request. 

Republican state officials then filed an emergency application in the Supreme Court — on the Court’s shadow docket — asking it to pause the district court’s order. In a 6-3 order, the Supreme Court granted the application, thereby reinstating the previously blocked congressional map. The Court’s conservative justices also agreed to review the case before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision and paused the case until the Court decided Allen v. Milligan, a similar case in Alabama (the one where the state tried numerous times to defy court orders). As a result, voters in Louisiana voted under illegal maps in the 2022 election. 

After the landmark ruling in Allen upholding Section 2 of the VRA, the Supreme Court unpaused the order blocking Louisiana’s congressional map and sent the case back to the 5th Circuit for further litigation. The 5th Circuit scheduled oral argument for Oct. 6 on the state’s appeal of the order blocking the map. 

The district court also scheduled a three-day hearing during the first week of October to determine how the state’s likely Section 2 violation will be remedied and ultimately what congressional map will be in place for the 2024 elections. Louisiana Republicans promptly requested to cancel that hearing as well, but the court denied their request acknowledging that the case had been “extensively litigated” and preparations for a remedial hearing were “essentially complete.” 

In a Hail-Mary attempt to further delay progress toward a second majority-Black district, Republicans requested extraordinary relief in the form of a writ of mandamus (a court order compelling a party to take a certain action) to block the three-day hearing on a new congressional map. On Sept. 28, a conservative three-judge panel granted this request and canceled the hearing, further delaying progress toward a new, fair map for Black voters. Louisiana voters have now asked the Supreme Court to pause and subsequently reverse the 5th Circuit’s order. 

With the future of Lousisana’s congressional maps in limbo, the 5th Circuit will hear oral argument on whether the lower court’s order to redraw the maps should be reversed on Oct. 6. Republican officials will argue that the plaintiffs can litigate their claims at trial well in advance of the 2024 elections so there is simply no need to temporarily block the order. They claim that two majority-Black districts aren’t necessary for Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice in the state and that the plaintiffs seek to place communities together solely based on race leaving no concern for whether those communities share a common interest. 

However, the plaintiffs contend that their alternatives “comply with neutral redistricting criteria and unite communities with shared interests.” They also assert that their proposals are not racial gerrymanders.

Without a remedy, Black voters are left to navigate a congressional map that does not allow for adequate representation.

The current map at issue has six congressional districts with the 2nd Congressional District serving as the lone majority-Black district. The pro-voting plaintiffs describe it as “a serpentine district that snakes through New Orleans and Baton Rouge to collect minority voters.” Practically this means that Black voters in both major cities are forced to share a representative despite concerns that the interest in both communities do not always align. 

Voters have pointed out that the cities have different economies, school systems and infrastructure concerns. Other Black voters in Baton Rouge, located in Louisiana’ s 6th Congressional District, insist they are left with representation — U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) — that is not responsive to their needs. 

The groups that brought the consolidated redistricting lawsuits argue that there are enough Black voters in Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish and the Mississippi Delta parishes to create another majority-Black district. Members of the community see Baton Rouge “as the urban anchor for the delta parishes, providing educational and economic opportunities that link the state capital with communities to the north along the Mississippi River.” In that way, the interests of those communities are much more aligned. Experts are also confident that this solution would allow Black voters an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. 

Louisiana has a long, dark and not-so-distant history of racism and voter suppression. In New Orleans, Maggy Baccinelli of the ACLU of Louisiana reasoned that “Black people in this state need to have a fair chance at electing representatives who have walked in their shoes, representatives who know what it’s like to exist as an African American person in Louisiana.” For many Black voters in the Bayou State, the fight transcends the boundaries of district lines. It’s an opportunity to see their concerns and their story reflected in representation, policy and tangible results for their communities. 

Oral argument in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Republicans’ appeal of the decision that blocked Louisiana’s congressional map last year will be held on Oct. 6 at 10 a.m. EDT. Follow live updates on the hearing here