Lawsuit alleges gerrymandered state district dilutes black vote

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TODAY IN MISSISSIPPI: News from and about our state

Three African American men in the Delta filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state of gerrymandering one of its districts in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Civil Rights attorneys argue in the lawsuit that the boundaries of Senate District 22, which is located primarily in the Mississippi Delta, intentionally dilute African-American voting strength in the area. And they’ve asked U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves to order state officials to redraw the district before statewide elections in 2019.

“There will be a lot of focus on redistricting when election lines everywhere are redrawn after the 2020 census,” said Jackson civil rights attorney Rob McDuff, who is working with the Mississippi Center for Justice on the lawsuit.  “But because there is a problem with District 22 that needs to be cured before the census and before the 2019 election, we are bringing this case now.”

The defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and Attorney General Jim Hood.

Senate District 22, which has been held by Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, since 2004, covers six counties in the Delta and central Mississippi. The district is irregularly-shaped, with a wide center and two narrow arms, one that reaches north past Cleveland and another that reaches into Madison County, ending at the Barnett Reservoir. The distance between the two points, as the crow flies, is 102 miles. Mississippi, which has 52 senate districts, is approximately 320 miles top to bottom.

The plaintiffs, Joseph Thomas of Yazoo County, Vernon Ayers of Washington County, and Melvin Lawson of Bolivar County, all live in District 22. Those three counties are in the Delta and predominantly African American.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, alleges that state officers elongated the district, adding Madison County’s wealthy and largely white neighborhoods, to limit the district’s black voting age population to 50.8 percent. They argue that this, combined with white bloc voting and lower African American turnout, has consistently diluted the voting strength of one of the most African American parts of the state.

“Gerrymandering stands as one of the greatest threats to democracy today. The current districting plan in Mississippi’s state Senate effectively denies African American voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Mississippi Center for Justice and McDuff were joined by the Lawyer’s Committee, the Waters Kraus law firm of Dallas, Tex., and Cleveland attorney, Ellis Turnage.