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Roll Call

Off-Year Elections Mean Redistricting Head Start for Four States

Each state will go through redistricting this year, but four of them will tackle the process early thanks to off-year elections. Virginia, New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi could not be more different when it comes to drawing new lines for Members and state legislative districts. Virginia legislators will put together the state’s plan during a special session, while New Jersey will handle the lines through a bipartisan commission and split the process in two so the state legislative races are ready by the fall elections. Down South, Louisiana legislators must draw lines to factor in a one-seat loss due to population decline. In Mississippi, it could be a partisan showdown since Democrats control both chambers of the state House but Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has the ability to veto their plan.

Louisiana

Almost every factor that could complicate redistricting will complicate redistricting in Louisiana. In addition to having an accelerated timetable because of state legislative elections this year, the Pelican State is losing a seat and must satisfy Voting Rights Act requirements to protect minority groups. The state Legislature also has term limits, leaving a few state-level politicians considering their next steps as they redraw the lines.

Louisiana has just one Democrat, freshman Rep. Cedric Richmond, in its House delegation, and because of the need to keep at least one black-majority district, he seems likely to keep his seat. That may leave nearby freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R) in jeopardy, as legislators decide how to carve up the shrinking area around New Orleans.

The ongoing debate is whether the Gulf Coast is best represented by two Members or just one. Landry and four-term Rep. Charles Boustany (R) represent the coastline now, and Boustany has been preparing for a tough battle in the next round. At the end of 2010, he had $561,000 in cash on hand and no debt, having been unopposed in the general election. Landry, however, had a close race to replace Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), who lost a Senate bid. Landry’s campaign finance report reflected the difficult campaign — he had less than $1,000 on hand but $82,000 in debt. Boustany lives in Lafayette, which is on the eastern edge of his current district, and Landry lives in New Iberia, just a half-hour’s drive southeast of Lafayette.

A February special election gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, so the GOP now controls both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. Their process began with public hearings around the state in mid-February; the last of those were set to be held in Monroe and Alexandria today.

Next, state legislators will hold a special redistricting session beginning March 20. During that session they’ll draw not only legislative and Congressional lines, but also court, public service commission and school district lines. By late April or early May they must submit at least the state legislative lines to the Department of Justice for preclearance. Depending on whether the lines are cleared, the process could become more complicated after that, but the state legislative lines must be approved by Aug. 29 so candidates can qualify for the ballot in early September.

Mississippi

Redistricting in Mississippi seems unlikely to be as complicated as it may be in other states. It will retain all four of its seats and be subject to the approval of a Republican governor and a Democratic state Legislature, as well as preclearance from the Department of Justice.

After Democratic Reps. Travis Childers and Gene Taylor lost in the 2010 general election, the only Democrat left in Mississippi’s House delegation is Rep. Bennie Thompson. His minority-majority west-central 2nd district needs to gain population, and Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee’s northern 1st district needs to lose population.

Mississippi lawmakers would prefer to finish Congressional and legislative redistricting in the same process, but they do not have to get them done at the same time. The state Legislature has two bicameral committees made up of the same members; one handles Congressional redistricting, while the other handles legislative redistricting. The two bills will be passed into law in slightly different ways. Legislative redistricting will be passed by a joint resolution that Republican Gov. Haley Barbour can’t veto, but Congressional redistricting will be passed by a general bill that he could veto if he finds the new lines unacceptable.

Mississippi is well-prepared for the redistricting process. Ted Booth, general counsel for the two committees, said the state has held 16 public hearings since August and lawmakers are hoping to pass both Congressional and legislative redistricting plans during the regular session.

Mississippi legislators serve four-year terms and don’t have term limits, so it seems unlikely they would be more motivated to run for higher office because of redistricting. 

During the last round of reapportionment, Mississippi lost a seat, and the state Legislature had so much trouble drawing lines that the process moved to the courts. Ultimately, its Congressional delegation went from three Democrats and two Republicans to two Members from each party. The two newest Members of the delegation, then-Reps. Chip Pickering (R) and Clifford “Ronnie” Shows (D), faced off in northern Mississippi, and Pickering won with
64 percent of the vote.

This year marks the first time that a Democrat has been at the helm of the Department of Justice during a redistricting year since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some Republican-leaning states are considering bypassing the DOJ to take their plans straight to court for approval; however, Booth said Mississippi is not likely to do so.

New Jersey

New Jersey officials will redraw state legislative districts by late spring, but the process of reshaping the Garden State’s Congressional districts likely won’t begin until early fall. And when it does, expect things to go slightly more smoothly than they will in other states, even as New Jersey struggles to eliminate one of its 13 Congressional seats because of population shifts.

New Jersey is one of a handful of states that handles reapportionment through bipartisan commissions balanced with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. The commission, which often uses an objective tiebreaker appointed by the state Supreme Court, eliminates some of the political wrangling that complicates such efforts elsewhere and ensures a relatively speedy timetable once the process begins.

But it will be a two-part process.

With an eye toward state House elections later this year, local officials are now consumed with the first step, which requires an independent commission to redraw state legislative districts. Once completed (the state constitution sets an April 3 deadline), a 12-member bipartisan commission balanced with six Republicans and six Democrats will be organized by early September to confront the Congressional districts.

The first step has little bearing on the second, but local officials expect similar themes to emerge in both. For example, a battle over “packing” and “cracking” is already well under way.

ew Jersey Republicans have started to shape alliances with local Hispanic groups in an effort to “pack” large numbers of Hispanic voters into certain legislative districts. The outcome, of course, leaves other districts far less diverse and more likely to vote for Republicans.

Many Democrats would prefer to spread minority voters throughout multiple districts to maximize their overall influence on the electoral map, known as “cracking.”

The debate is under way only in the context of New Jersey’s state legislative districts, but it’s fair to assume the conflict will spill into the fight over Congressional districts.

With all the attention on the state districts, local participants suggest it’s far too early to speculate which Member of Congress might be the big loser as New Jersey prepares to drop a seat.

It’s no secret that Democrats would like to go after freshman Rep. Jon Runyan (R) in the 3rd district, while Republicans could target Rep. Steven Rothman (D) in the 9th district. But look for both sides to move to the middle in an effort to win the favor of the Supreme Court-appointed tiebreaker.

A final Congressional redistricting plan must be approved by Jan. 17, 2012.

Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly next month will tackle redrawing Congressional and legislative district lines, getting an early start on redistricting because the Old Dominion holds elections this fall.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell ultimately controls the process, though the plans will be drawn in divided assembly chambers. The state Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats, and the GOP is in charge of the state House.

New population estimates mean Virginia won’t lose or gain any Congressional seats, and the quietly whispered scuttlebutt is that the state’s Members — eight Republicans and three Democrats — have already agreed to keep the status quo.

That puts the attention on state legislative lines, where shifts could help secure Democratic power in the state Senate. It’s been a closely divided chamber for many years, but the Democrats were able to win control in 2007 after several successful statewide elections for the party. (The split is 22-18. Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can break tie votes as Senate president.)

Democrats are most concerned about keeping the state Senate seats that they won in 2007 in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. They aim to draw lines that shore up Democratic voters and that present new opportunities to win GOP seats in the growing Northern Virginia exurbs: Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties. President Barack Obama won those voters in 2008, and Democrats won them in the 2001 and 2005 gubernatorial races.

“We’re prepared to fight,” a Democratic source told Roll Call.

The special General Assembly session focused exclusively on redistricting plans will resume after a veto session in early April. Before adjourning their session last month, lawmakers agreed to handle Congressional and state districts during the special session even though they could have split them up.

Republicans will adhere to a basic formula when looking at the Congressional districts, peeling off Republicans from safe GOP districts and using those voters to shore up vulnerable Republicans in swing districts.

The 2nd district has fluctuated between Republicans and Democrats depending on the year, and shuffling some GOP-heavy areas from the strongly Republican 1st district into the 2nd would be an easy boost for freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R). They will also look to shore up Republican areas in the Fredericksburg area.

Officials held public hearings last fall examining the lines and paying special attention to racial representation in the Hampton Roads area. After McDonnell approves the plan, it goes to the Department of Justice because the Voting Rights Act requires Virginia to submit the lines early for preclearance. After the new lines are approved, the state will hold August party primaries — delayed from June.

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