Will Republicans run up score with redistricting?

Published 8:16 pm Friday, July 30, 2021

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One Democrat in the Mississippi Senate – Hob Bryan of Amory – represents a district that does not have a majority African American population.

Republicans hold 36 of the seats in the 52-member chamber. There are currently 14 Democrats. Two Democrats resigned this summer and special elections have not been held to replace them. Those two vacant Senate seats as well as 13 other districts represented by Democrats not named Bryan have a Black population of more than 50%.

In the coming months, as U.S. Census data comes in, legislators will begin the task of redrawing the 52 Senate districts and 122 House districts to match population shifts found by the decennial census. Legislators on the committee tasked with overseeing the drawing of both state legislative districts and the four U.S. House seats will hold nine public hearings across the state, starting at 6 p.m. Aug. 5 at Meridian Community College’s McCain Theatre, to garner public input. Then in the 2022 session, legislators will try to complete the redistricting process.

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Presumably, Republicans who control the Senate could redraw the districts in a manner to increase their numbers, but at this point that would be just running up the score.

There are past federal court precedents that would seem to prevent the Legislature from reducing the number of Black majority districts. But in recent court rulings, the federal courts – particularly the U.S. Supreme Court – have seemed less willing in the eyes of some to protect minority voting rights.

Still, it is safe to assume the Senate leadership would have little interest in garnering national attention by reducing the number of African American districts.

And as far as Bryan is concerned, a district in northeast Mississippi most likely could be drawn to reduce his re-election chances. But it also is unlikely the Senate leadership is inclined to do that. Most senators have at some point cursed Bryan’s occasional outbursts and eccentricities. At the same time, most senators, including members of the leadership, have made no secret of their respect for his intellect and knowledge of the legislative process.

Perhaps that is best exemplified by the fact that Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann placed Bryan on the committee charged with redrawing the districts.

Over in the House, the situation is much the same. There are five Democrats who represent districts that were majority white when they were drawn in 2012.

Like in the Senate, the House Republicans, who control all the power with their 76 members, could increase their numbers through redistricting to the extent they would not be blocked by federal courts, but at some point such an effort might just look like poor sportsmanship.

There are currently 40 Black members in the House.

The point being that in the redistricting after the 2010 Census there was an urgency by both Republicans and Democrats to redistrict in such a manner to ensure their respective party’s control of the Legislature. That fight is over. The Republicans won, and they won big.

If Democrats had prevailed in the 2011 election and controlled redistricting in the 2012 session, they could have drawn districts in a manner to give members of their party more of a fighting chance, particularly in the House.

But House Democrats, who held the majority before they lost the 2011 election by a narrow margin, lost the ability to control the redrawing of the districts in the 2012 session. The result was Republicans drew districts where they had significant advantages. For instance, before the redrawing of the districts in 2012, when Democrats controlled the House, there were 13 House districts drawn with significant but not dominant African American influence – a Black population of more than 35% but less than a majority.

Conventional wisdom has been that such districts give white Democrats the best chance to win in Mississippi. During the last redistricting, after Republicans had wrestled control, that number dropped to two districts with a Black population of more than 35% but less than a majority. In the Senate, the change went from 11 districts with a Black population of more than 35% but less than a majority to three.

In other words, Republicans did their redistricting work in 2012 to ensure their legislative dominance. Redistricting this time will be more about maintaining.

But even if Democrats had won the House in the 2011 elections, there would have been no guarantee that they could have drawn districts that would have ensured their continued control of the House. The bottom line continues to be that in Mississippi the vast majority of white people vote Republican and most African Americans vote Democrat.

And any amount of legislative redistricting will not change that voting pattern and give Democrats a fighting chance to regain control of the Mississippi Legislature in the foreseeable future.

Bobby Harrison covers state politics for Mississippi Today.