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Louisiana lawmakers continue work on new congressional districts

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(The Center Square) — Efforts to enact new congressional and state Supreme Court districts, and to shift to closed party primaries continue during the Louisiana Legislature’s eight-day extraordinary session.

House lawmakers on Thursday were slated to take up Senate Bill 8 by Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisonburg, following approval in the upper chamber with a vote of 27-11 on Wednesday.

SB 8, Gov. Jeff Landry’s preferred vehicle for crafting new congressional districts, would turn Republican Congressman Garret Graves’ District 6 into a second Black-majority district, one of two bills moving aimed at complying with a court order to add a second Black-majority district.

The other, House Bill 14 by Monroe Republican Rep. Michael Echols, was scheduled for a debate on the floor of the House later Thursday afternoon after clearing the House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday.

Womack said during Senate testimony that he designed SB 8 to preserve seats for Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, Republican Majority Leader Steve Scalise, and Republican Rep. Julia Letlow, the only woman on the Louisiana congressional delegation and Womack’s congressman.

Echols contends HB 14, which also puts Graves in political peril, represents a more contiguous option, though will lower Black voting age populations than in Womack’s two Black majority districts. Both options would preserve a majority Black district centered on New Orleans currently represented by Democratic Congressman Troy Carter.

Graves and Johnson have spoken out against the redistricting effort, urging lawmakers to instead proceed to a trial on the merits of the current congressional map set for February.

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will review legislation to redraw the state’s seven Supreme Court districts on Thursday afternoon. The House approved House Bill 8 by House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, with a vote of 94-10 on Wednesday.

The bill, which would utilize an open seat in Shreveport in 2024 to add a second Black majority district, was drafted by a majority of the state’s current Supreme Court justices to address a severe population imbalance between districts that have only been reworked once in the last 103 years, Johnson said.

The Senate committee will also review a more contentious House Bill 17, sponsored by Carencro Republican Rep. Julie Emerson to shift from the state’s current jungle primary system to a closed party primary. HB 17 cleared the lower chamber with 64 yeas and 40 nays on Wednesday.

Emerson told members of a House committee earlier this week that HB 17 would allow the state’s two major political parties to determine if unaffiliated voters could participate and would apply to congressional races in 2025, as well as all statewide, legislative, state school board, and judicial races by 2026.

Democrats and others on the committee and during testimony raised concerns with disenfranchising the roughly 660,000 Louisiana voters who are not affiliated with a party, as well as the cost. Officials at the Secretary of State estimate it’s roughly $7.2 million in direct costs and $3 million in indirect costs per election.

While the Louisiana Republican Party, the Pelican Institute, and Gov. Jeff Landry support the change, the Public Affairs Research Council and others have testified against the measure. PAR argued in a recent commentary the move “could cost more, confuse voters and disenfranchise those that don’t belong to either the Republican or Democratic party.

“The public receives no benefit from such a move, and even the potential partisan gain is speculative,” the analysis read.

John Couvillon, a pollster with JMC Analytics, testified this week that 65% of voters support keeping the current jungle primary, which involves all candidates in one election, with a runoff among the top two if none receive a majority. About 56% of voters opposed the closed primary system, he said.

“There’s a broad consensus of support for the current system,” Couvillon said.

The eight day extraordinary session began on Monday and is slated to run through Jan. 23.

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