Redistricting Is A Cutthroat Job

Watching the redrawing of election lines up close at the Louisiana Legislature last week proved to be an educational and frustrating experience. Unfortunately, it’s also a demeaning event for those who become victims of the process.

Rep. James Armes of Leesville, one of those victims, is a feisty and likable fellow. I watched him struggle for a week trying to save his election district.

Don’t get me wrong. The political future of Armes isn’t what’s important in the overall scheme of things. It’s what he means to the people of Beauregard and Vernon parishes.

Armes is one of them. They couldn’t have a more dedicated advocate for their causes.

Vernon lost only 197 citizens over the last decade, but the odds are they are going to lose one of the voices they have in the state House of Representatives.

This corner of the state would lose as well. Armes is a graduate of McNeese State who fights for the university and other institutions in the Lake Charles area.

What’s next?

Unless some changes are made in the coming week, Armes will have to run against Rep. Chris Roy, D-Alexandria, in October. The district they would run in would have 23,535 citizens in Roy’s home parish of Rapides and 20,785 in Vernon where Armes lives.

Of those Rapides numbers, 14,236 people are registered to vote. However, only 9,770 voters are registered out of the 20,785 in Vernon. That’s because the Vernon part of the district includes Ft. Polk. Most of the 10,000 military personnel there are registered to vote in their home states.

Armes doesn’t have a chance against those odds.

Legislators in three other House districts are also having to run against one another, but their odds are much better than Armes’ chances.

Other legislators already know they’ve lost their seats because their voter bases have been scattered in every direction.

Rep. Sam Little, R-Bastrop, is one of those.

“Are you headed off to the war?” I asked him as he left the House chamber Friday to attend a committee meeting where his fate would be decided.

“I’ve already lost,” he said.

Little was right. The final committee vote confirmed he had.

It isn’t over until it’s over, of course. But the chances of getting the bill changed on the House floor next week are mighty slim.

Armes isn’t one to take this lying down. He asked me a favor as I left the House to return to Lake Charles for the weekend.

“Tell the voters in Beauregard and Vernon parishes I’m not giving up without a fight,” he said.

Why is all of this happening? It’s because the entire state is still feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The population of this state has shifted in every direction.

Election lines have to be redrawn after every federal census. It can’t be done without paying close attention to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was amended in 2006.

Federal law says black voting strength has to be maintained and minority districts have to be created wherever possible.

Louisiana is one of nine states that must have election changes pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. That’s because of past voter discrimination, a situation many believe no longer applies. Nevertheless, it’s still the law until it’s changed.

Population losses in New Orleans caused by the hurricane resulted in that area losing six seats in the House and two in the Senate. So new minority districts had to be created elsewhere in the state.

One of those House minority districts is being created with citizens from DeSoto, Natchitoches, Red River and Sabine parishes. And it affected surrounding parishes.

Rep. Rick Nowlin, R-Natchitoches, lost voters in his home parish to the new minority district. So the question appeared to be whether Nowlin or Armes would run against Roy in Rapides Parish.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, is sponsor of the House reapportionment bill. He decided it would be Armes rather than Nowlin.

“I hope it’s not politically motivated to do away with a Democratic seat,” Armes told The Town Talk of Alexandria. He said most of it “had to do with Rick Nowlin not wanting to run against Chris Roy.”

Struggle continues

Armes said Saturday he was still at the Capitol preparing amendments designed to put his Beauregard-Vernon district back together. He knows it’s going to be tough.

A surprising twist to all of this is the fact black legislators still aren’t happy with the creation of those minority districts that are drastically affecting districts all around them. And the creation of one additional Senate minority district and three new House minority seats hasn’t changed their minds.

The Senate bill got out of committee 4-3, and two of those three votes against were cast by black legislators. The House committee voted 14-4 for its bill, and two of the four are black lawmakers. They complained there was too much political maneuvering or that not enough was being done for minorities.

Reapportionment moves to the floor of both houses this week, and the struggle for political survival will continue. We can only hope the final outcome isn’t based on political considerations but on what is fair and the right thing to do.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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