Federal judge says 102 mile-long district violates Voting Rights Act, orders map redrawn

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A federal judge said a Mississippi state senate district, which snakes 102 miles across the state, violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

State Senate District 22 stretches from near Cleveland, in the heart of the Delta, down to the Jackson metro area. Sen. Buck Clark, R-Hollandale, has held that senate seat since 2004. The defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and Attorney General Jim Hood.

The Mississippi Center for Justice and Jackson-based attorney Rob McDuff represent the plaintiffs and were joined in the suit by the Lawyer’s Committee, the Waters Kraus law firm of Dallas., and Cleveland attorney, Ellis Turnage.

In June, three African American men who live in District 22 filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state of gerrymandering that district, which lies mostly in the majority black Delta, to intentionally dilute African-American voting strength. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the district violates the Voting Rights Act and ordered the Legislature to redraw the district before statewide elections in November.

“As presently drawn, District 22 does not afford the plaintiffs ‘an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice,'” Reeves wrote in his order, citing Supreme Court precedent.

The Legislature will get the first crack at redrawing the district in a way that complies with the mandates of the Voting Rights Act, but whatever plan they come up with is likely to have repercussions across neighboring districts.

Reeves noted that the plaintiffs had already suggested three alternate plans that comply. Two of those plans would affect only Districts 22 and 23. A third plan would affect Districts 22, 23, and 13. Those seats are held by Clark, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, and Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, respectively.

Clarke is not seeking reelection to the Senate in 2019 but is running for state treasurer. Hayes Dent of Yazoo County, a lobbyist and former aide to Gov. Kirk Fordice, is the only Republican who has qualified to run for the District 22 seat as currently drawn.

Senate District 22 currently 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 is approximately 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. Each of those counties, all located in the Delta, are predominantly African American.

The lawsuit, filed in June, 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.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included an outdated map of District 22.