Senate unveils redistricting map

Published 12:12 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

JACKSON (AP) — A proposed new map for the Mississippi Senate includes more majority-black districts and fewer split precincts statewide.

The Republican senator who led the redistricting effort, Merle Flowers of Southaven, said he’s confident it will be adopted with bipartisan support.

“We have worked hard to draw a plan that’s fair and complies with the law,” Flowers said as the map was released to the public Tuesday afternoon. The Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday.

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New districts have to be redrawn every decade to reflect population changes found by the Census.

The plan reduces the number of split precincts from 129 statewide to 14. Flowers said that was a big goal because election officials and voters are often confused when some people in a precinct vote in one legislative district and others vote in a different district.

The map creates a new district in fast-growing DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn. To remain within the allotted 52 districts, it combines the districts of two incumbent white Democrats on the northern end of the state, second-term Sen. Bill Stone of Ashland and fifth-term Sen. Nickey Browning of Pontotoc. The combined district includes much more of Browning’s territory than Stone’s.

“I hate it for me and Sen. Stone,” Browning said. “I lost some of my main area in Pontotoc County.”

DeSoto County is one of the strongest Republican areas of the state, and the new seat is expected to add to the GOP’s current majority of 31 Senate seats.

Asked about any partisan motive in combining Stone and Browning, Flowers said: “They happen to be Democrats.”

Senators were called to Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ office for private meetings to see their districts before the whole map was unveiled in a Capitol committee room. Senators and lobbyists gathered around two poster-sized copies of the map in the public meeting, taking notes and snapping photos with their cellphones.

The plan was quickly approved by three committees, advancing it to the full Senate.

The map includes 15 majority-black Senate districts. When districts were drawn by federal judges a decade ago, there were 12 majority-black districts. With some population changes, there were 13 majority-black districts by the time this round of redistricting started.

Mississippi has a 37 percent black population and a 35 percent black voting-age population. Under the proposed map, 29 percent of the Senate districts would be majority-black.

Because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, any election changes — including redistricting plans — must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that the changes don’t dilute minority voting strength.

One of the new majority-black districts is in the Hattiesburg-Laurel area. It is District 34, now represented by second-term Sen. Haskins Montgomery of Bay Springs, a white Democrat. The current district has a 38.5 percent black voting age population and includes all of Jasper and Smith counties and part of Jones and Scott counties. The proposed new district would have a 55 percent black voting age population and would shift southward to include all of Montgomery’s home base of Jasper County and parts of Jones and Forrest counties.

Another new majority-black district is District 22, now represented by third-term Sen. Buck Clarke of Hollandale, a white Republican. It now has a 49.8 percent black voting age population and includes parts of Bolivar, Humphreys, Washington and Yazoo counties. The new district would be 50.1 percent black voting age and would include all of Sharkey County and parts of Bolivar, Humphreys, Madison and Washington counties.

District 29 is now represented by second-term Sen. David Blount of Jackson, a white Democrat. The current district has a 50.3 percent black voting age population and is entirely in Hinds County. The proposed new district would have a 53 percent black voting age population, also entirely in Hinds County. The district would lose its Clinton precincts and pick up some parts of Jackson it didn’t already have.

“I felt like I was listened to by the chairman and treated fairly,” Blount said.

The economically struggling Delta lost population between 2000 and 2010, and that’s reflected in the new map that expands the geography of most Senate districts to take in more people.

Sen. Derrick Simmons, a black Democrat from Greenville, said he believes the Delta gets a fair shake.

“I think with the constraints the chairman had to operate under, he did a great job,” said Simmons, who has served since winning a special election in early 2011.

The 122-member House approved its own redistricting plan last week. Each chamber must approve the other’s plan before the maps can be sent to the Justice Department. It’s also possible that the maps could be challenged with a federal lawsuit.