NAACP files suit over Mississippi redistricting

Published 2:54 pm Friday, March 18, 2011

The Mississippi Senate has rejected a House redistricting plan — an action that has drawn a lawsuit and possibly set the stage for federal intervention in the state’s election process.

The Senate voted Thursday to seek negotiations with the House on drawing new maps for both chambers. That vote came despite Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy’s decision not to negotiate with the Senate on the matter. McCoy insists that the Senate accept a House plan drawn by the House, just as the House has already accepted a Senate plan drawn by the Senate.

Shortly after the vote, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said it filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction to block this year’s elections under the current district lines, saying the districts don’t reflect the latest census figures.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“Since the Senate broke tradition and did not concur with the House, it is unlikely the plan of the Legislature can be put in place in time for the election. We did not want the Legislature or any of the candidates running in the current districts because they are severely malapportioned,” said Carroll Rhodes, an attorney for the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. “We plan on offering maps to the court in a couple of days.”

Legislators are redrawing House and Senate seats to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census. The U.S. Justice Department has to approve the new maps to ensure minority voting strength isn’t diluted. Lawmakers are under a time crunch because they say Justice Department approval generally takes at least 60 days. June 1 is candidates’ qualifying deadline for this year’s legislative elections.

Rhodes said the NAACP maps will not be the same as those drafted by the House or Senate.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said he is opposed to the House plan because he doesn’t think it’s fair to the GOP. He said he would appoint three senators to negotiate the proposal. One of those will be Senate Elections Committee Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton. Burton voted to accept the House plan.

“With just a few agreements between some House Republicans and the leadership we can get this done,” Bryant said Thursday.

The House adjourned for the weekend on Thursday and plans to return Monday. But when contacted by telephone, McCoy said the issue has become a legal matter. McCoy had earlier said he would contact the Justice Department about the matter.

“We’re disappointed the Senate didn’t concur in our plan. I think there will probably be an announcement in the next day or two. Right now, it’s a very touchy legal matter,” McCoy said.

The vote Thursday was on a proposal that earlier passed the House. It included both the House and Senate redistricting maps. The Senate’s redistricting map was passed in the House unchanged. McCoy said his chamber was honoring a decades-old tradition that each chamber should not interfere with the other’s plan.

The House plan reduces the number of split precincts from 449 to fewer than 200. It goes from 39 majority-black House districts to 44.

The Senate redistricting plan would increase Senate minority districts from 12 to 15. That includes a district around Hattiesburg that previously had been part of a Republican-leaning district. The Senate plan also would reduce the number of split precincts from 129 to 17.

Lawmakers in both chambers have said Republicans are rejecting the House plan in hopes of torpedoing the redistricting process to give the GOP two attempts to vote for the House speaker if lawmakers are forced to run for their seats twice. 

Lawmakers have said if an agreement isn’t reached, Mississippi might have to conduct legislative elections two years in a row — this year in outdated districts that are not balanced by population, and next year in new districts, if the new maps are ready by then. Mississippi had to hold back-to-back elections in 1991 and 1992 because of difficulty creating redistricting maps.

Several of the Republican senators received a letter from Republican Gov. Haley Barbour urging them to reject the House plan, said Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, who held up a copy of the letter as she argued that the Senate should accept the House map.

“Not a person in here can vote for the speaker. Why are we so concerned about what happens in the speaker’s race,” Harden said.

In the letter, Barbour said “the House plan would pack nearly 30,000 more Mississippians in 35 existing districts currently held by Republicans than mathematically should be included in those districts. The plan drawn by House Democrats ignores the population growth in Madison and Rankin counties and the Hattiesburg area.”

Barbour said in the letter those areas combined have grown by 65,741 people since 2000. A House map drawn by Republicans does not put more House districts in Madison and Rankin counties.

After the vote, Barbour released a statement congratulating Bryant “for protecting the interests of all Mississippi voters. I hope the conference committee will craft a House plan that treats voters in every district the same.”

The resolution is Joint Resolution 201.