by Tobias Eisenlohr
A new study draws attention to the odd shape of Louisiana’s second congressional district as one of the least “compact” jurisdictions in the nation. Azavea, a geospatial data and web technology firm, released its findings on October 31, 2013, which analyzes the shape of all United States congressional districts and provides insight into the motivations and effects of redistricting. Rooted in geographic rather than demographic statistics, the study pinpoints a district’s physical “compactness” as an indicator of its status as gerrymandered. Compactness is defined by analyzing two factors: how far a district strays from a traditional circle or square shape, and how smooth its boundaries are. Encompassing nearly all of the city of New Orleans and stretching west past Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s second district consists of 1202 square miles and meanders in an odd “Zorro”-shape. Home to nearly 500,000 people (344,935 white and 153,908 black), the second district is the seventh-least compact congressional district in the nation. Overall, Louisiana ranked as the third-least compact state in the nation, leading only Maryland and North Carolina.
The so-called “one person, one vote” principle requires federal election districts to be as equal as possible in population. Compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires legislatures to ensure minority franchise by providing for “majority-minority” districts in which racial or ethnic minorities constitute a basic majority of the population. Care is also taken that the minority-majority district not be too heavily stacked in favor of a minority at that minority’s expense in the other districts. In other words, lumping an entire minority population into one congressional district may subject a state to a VRA Section suit, as would dividing up minority communities into ineffectual slivers of majority white districts. However, divergent populations, demographic trends, and natural geography prevent districts from accomplishing the goal of a “perfectly balanced” electoral division. Therefore, not all deviations from the standard should be treated as efforts to disenfranchise minorities. However, the “compactness” of a district, as indicated by an odd shape, is an important consideration in determining whether a district may have been intentionally designed to discriminate. In the case of Louisiana’s second district, the odd shape and the fact that the white population is nearly double that of the black population has drawn criticism that the district was intentionally created to stifle the black electorate.
As legal remedy is, however, unlikely. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Supreme Court established a precedent for striking down electoral districts whose odd shapes were designed to disenfranchise. The electoral district in question was a crazed twenty-eight sided figure clearly drawn to disenfranchise black voters, and was nullified under the 15th Amendment on the basis of a racially biased motivation and a racially biased effect. However, while the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr held that the federal government may intervene in and decide redistricting cases, the court has also made it clear in Miller v. Johnson that a regular district shape is not a constitutional requirement. Miller sets the standard that a “bizarre” shape may be persuasive circumstantial evidence that “race for its own sake was the legislature’s dominant and controlling rationale” only if it is the irregularity is found in conjunction with persuasive racial and population-density data. Finally, while critics point the finger at Louisiana’s Second Congressional District as a prime example of the perceived evils of gerrymandering, it is important to note that this Louisiana redistricting plan predates the controversial Shelby County v. Holder. Therefore, the plan was scrutinized by the United States Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and satisfied the agency’s preclearance formula. Due to this, it is likely that the second district would survive a Section 2 challenge.