Gerrymandering ruling could trigger special session to redraw state Senate district

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As of Friday, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, could take solace in knowing that no one qualified to run against him for his District 23 Senate seat.

But that all might have changed when a three judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday afternoon ordered the Legislature to redraw the 102 mile long Senate District 22 that the a lower court had ruled was improperly drawn to dilute black voting strength.

The question now is what happens next. If the district is redrawn, it is likely that Hopson’s district which is centered in Warren County, will be moved eastward to pick up additional white voters in Madison County that are currently in District 22. The court had set an April 12 deadline for candidates to qualify to run in the newly drawn districts, creating the potential for Hopson to pick up an opponent. The qualifying deadline had been March 1.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said a final decision has not been made on how to deal with the judicial order.

“We are having conversations with senators,” he said Tuesday. “Anytime you affect one district, it has the potential of affecting all 51 other districts.”

Since the 2019 regular session is in its final days, Speaker Philip Gunn said it might take a special session at this point to redraw the districts.

And if that happens, “I would assume that in the Senate, since they are the ones being impacted, they would get a plan together before the governor would call a special session,” he said.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who oversees state elections, said he imagined he would get together this week with Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders to determine whether to try to appeal the decision.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, who has been involved in redistricting lawsuits that have led to more African American representation in the Legislature, said the court ruling was important and he doubted it would be overturned.

He said he believes the districts will be redrawn either by the courts or the Legislature.

And with redistricting coming up soon after the November election – before the 2023 election – Blackmon said the ruling is significant “because I suspect the new plan (after the Census) will favor the incumbent.” There is a possibility that new incumbent would be African American.

Blackmon said the ruling could create a base line for the number of majority African American districts in the Senate and it would be difficult for legislators to lower that number. The Legislature must redraw legislative districts every 10 years based on population changes found by the U.S. Census.

He said the ruling also is important because it says “just because the Supreme Court has overturned Section 5 of the voting rights act that does not mean that districts lines can be drawn in a manner to discriminate against certain people.”

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required Mississippi to garner U.S. Department of Justice approval of election changes, such as the redrawing of legislative districts, to ensure the changes do not discriminate against minority voters. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the manner Section 5 was being used to oversee election changes in such states as Mississippi that had a history of voter discrimination.

Blackmon pointed out just because the state no longer had to obtain that Justice Department approval did not mean election changes are not subject to the scrutiny of the federal courts.

He said the issue going forward is that African Americans have been “packed in” super majority districts, leaving districts where white candidates, particularly white Republicans, only have to worry about winning their primary and the few African American voters in the districts are neglected.

Districts that are “packed in will be the fight next time,” he said.

District 22 runs from Bolivar County in the middle of the Delta into Madison County, a Jackson suburb. Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, the current incumbent is not seeking re-election in the district, but instead is running statewide for treasurer. Clarke won the last two elections in the district with about 53 percent of the vote.

A crowded field qualified to run in District 22 under its current configuration. They are Hayes Dent and Dwayne Self on the Republican side and Joseph Thomas, Vince “Biggs” Roberts, Colton Thornton, Ruffin Smith and Earl Scales on the Democratic side. Whether they will remain and run in District 22, if it is redrawn as ordered by the court, remains to be seen

Currently there are 13 African American senators in the 52 member Senate and 14 majority black districts.

The lawsuit was filed last summer by civil rights attorney Rob McDuff and the Mississippi Center for Justice on behalf of a group of voters who live in the Delta portion of the district.