The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The subtle, vital effects of letting Louisiana’s congressional map stand

Erin Doherty hugs her mother, Susanna Dew, 61, who is voting for the first time in her life, as they wait in line at a polling place on Election Day in New Orleans on Nov. 3, 2020. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

This month, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ordered that the state’s post-census congressional maps be redrawn to include an additional seat likely to be represented by a Black legislator. The math isn’t terribly complicated: About a third of the state’s population is Black and there will be six seats in the next Congress. Designing a map that packs one district with a third of the adult Black population (as the state’s proposed map did) while ensuring no other district’s electorate is even a fifth Black wasn’t going to cut it.

After all, Dick wrote in her decision, Louisiana has a track record of discrimination that might suggest that this reduction of Black political power was intentional. “Louisiana’s history of discrimination has been recognized by other federal courts,” she wrote, later adding that the “evidence of Louisiana’s long and ongoing history of voting-related discrimination weighs heavily in favor of Plaintiffs.”

New maps were ordered. Then, on Tuesday, they were blocked by the Supreme Court. As with a case in Alabama this year, the court determined that the proposed maps could be used for the 2022 midterm cycle.

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Coming into this year’s election, the Democratic majority in the House is among the narrowest in history. A flip of six seats and the Republicans take control of the chamber, something that seems likely to happen given historical trends and polling, including President Biden’s abysmal approval. This decision to maintain the map disadvantaging Black Louisianans in essence means the Republican job is one seat easier.

The new congressional lines upheld by the Supreme Court looks like this. Five districts have partisan leans of between 23 and 43 points to the Republicans, as measured by FiveThirtyEight. The sixth leans Democratic by 56 points.

If we overlay where Black adult Louisianans live, you can see why the boundaries of that sixth district were drawn the way they were. (These maps, using data from the invaluable site Districtr, extends boundaries into the ocean.) That district heads west from New Orleans, then north across a thin stretch of land to include much of the Black population of Baton Rouge.

You can see that thin ribbon connecting the two segments of the district below. A bit of blue, surrounded by the R+23 Sixth District.

Just under 33 percent of the Black adults in Louisiana live in the blue 2nd District. Two-thirds live outside of it. Including pockets in each of the other districts — pockets that were not granted the courtesy of being connected with thin regions to create a more-densely Black House seat.

As Dick wrote, “the weight of the evidence presented shows that two majority-minority congressional districts that satisfy [legal mandates] and respect traditional redistricting principles can be drawn in Louisiana.” They just weren’t.

The effect is to push most Black Louisianans into districts that will almost certainly be won by Republicans — despite Black Louisianans being heavily Democratic. Using data from the firm L2, which models the likely race of voters in the state, we can see how lopsided the effect of the new map is on Blacks.

Half the state’s White voter pool is Republican; more than 90 percent of Whites will live in districts likely to be won by Republicans. Only 1 in 40 Black Louisianans is a Republican, but Blacks have a two-to-one chance of living in a district with a Republican member of Congress.

It’s clearly not the case that everyone in America can live in a district where the elected leadership matches their political leaning. That’s why we have elections. That’s the point of democracy. Most of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 live in states won by President Biden.

The problem here is different. Put simply, the way in which race and party overlap means diluting the density of Black voters in Louisiana aids the state’s Republicans. The lines as drawn were almost certainly drafted specifically to take advantage of the correlation between Black residents and Democrats: Pack Black residents into the 2nd District and split them up in the other five and you consolidate not just the White electorate but the Republican one. In every district but the 2nd, the number of White adults is at least 1.9 times the number of Blacks. Nearly double. In a state where Whites are more than twice as likely to be Republican.

In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, legislation that for decades helped prevent similar uses of race to affect political power. At the time, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the boundaries of the law were no longer needed, since they’d been “immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, that success was better used as a reason to keep the VRA’s provisions, not to dump them. While no delineated vote on the Louisiana decision was provided by the court, Roberts was not among those objecting.

This is why telling people to change the system by voting often rings hollow. The system is smart enough to know how to reshape the power that voting’s meant to offer.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.