Has partisanship finally begun to trump race in Mississippi politics?

Published 1:17 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

Back in an August 2010 column on the topic of legislative redistricting, I wrote that the redistricting process was almost certainly headed to the federal courts and that back-to-back legislative elections in Mississippi appeared to be “politically unavoidable.”

Turns out, I may have been half right. While the trip to federal court was a lead pipe cinch, it appears now that the NAACP, the Democratic Party and the GOP have some decisions to make that will determine whether they believe the politics breaks best for them to press for back-to-back elections in 2011 and again in 2012 or to stand pat on the 2011 results until the regular 2015 legislative elections.

All parties have agreed that the current legislative districts drawn in 2002 — the ones the three judge federal panel said would be used to hold the 2011 legislative elections — were grossly malapportioned and injured the constitutional protection of “one person, one vote.” But the panel ruled — as argued by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann — that the Mississippi Constitution’s legal string had not been played out and that all remedies available under law had not been utilized, therefore the 2011 elections could proceed under the old districts.

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The new Legislature to be elected in 2011— with new leadership in one or possibly both houses — gets another shot at redistricting in 2012. If lawmakers are again unable to agree, the law requires the appointment of a state commission to complete the task — which may be the wildest of wild cards.

The ruling also leaves the possibility that the NAACP, the Democrats or the Republicans could let sleeping dogs lie after the 2011 election and not request a second round of elections in 2012. That’s where the politics gets really interesting.

Why would the NAACP and the Democrats decide to live with the outcome of the 2011 election held under the old districts despite the admitted malapportionment of the current districts? Because the outcome is likely to produce a House that’s under Democratic control. A recent spate of legislative retirements also has spurred debate about the outcome of running in the old districts plus the impact of those retirements on the House Speaker’s race.

There’s no readily obvious advantage to the GOP for them to press for back-to-back legislative elections. Frankly, the larger issue for House Republicans is the next speaker’s race, not the next round of legislative elections.

Moreover, voter anger over perceived problems with the redistricting plans on the table has produced widespread voter discontent in places like Oktibbeha County — which was sliced up like a cheap pizza in the House redistricting plan — will mean that newly-elected legislative candidates are freshly vetted on that issue by their constituents.

Hosemann, the architect of this truce, has observed: “There will be a redistricting in 2012.” It’s a matter of whether it’s done by the Legislature, the special commission or the courts, but it will be done.

Back in 1990, Mississippi lawmakers could not reach consensus on drawing new state legislative districts because of concerns over the looming House speaker’s election that would follow the 1991 general election and the racial and partisan makeup of legislative districts.

The result? Legislators were forced to run in their old legislative districts in the 1991 general election and again in new legislative districts in a 1992 special election. The current political climate, in which partisanship is beginning to trump race, dictates that Mississippi might actually avoid that outcome in 2012.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.