How a college student exposed racial gerrymandering, prompted a lawsuit and forced Mississippi to redraw a voting district

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Ole Miss Student John Chappell

OXFORD — Late one night in May 2017, John Chappell, then a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, pulled out his laptop to research a hypothesis.

Chappell, an Albuquerque native, had just finished reading several books on voting rights and found a map of the legislative districts in his adopted home state. One district in particular stood out to him: Senate District 22, a section of the state zigzagging 120 miles southward from the Delta fields to the affluent Jackson suburbs.

He began writing down the individual voting precincts in the district and noting their racial demographics. He looked at similar demographics of precincts in neighboring districts. When he read the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required states like Mississippi with a history of race-based voting discrimination to get approval to change voting laws, he knew he was onto something.

John Chappell

University of Mississippi student John Chappell redrew Senate districts into this map as an alternative to the current Senate District 22, which federal courts say violates the Voting Rights Act.

“There was obviously a demographic line being cut so that you can move the population in ways that’s advantageous to, in this case, white candidates,” Chappell said. “What makes the Voting Rights Act so revolutionary is that it’s about results, not intent. All you have to show is the results being racially discriminatory. You don’t have to say, ‘Oh, the people in the room are racist.’ You just have to say, ‘It can be done better.’ And I felt like it could be done a lot better.”

So in about ten hours over two nights, Chappell sat at his laptop and redrew the district so it would conform with federal law. That meant replacing some precincts in Senate District 22 with precincts in neighboring districts. He merged the precincts that had been split into separate Senate districts, color-coding each precinct onto a spreadsheet so he could track which precincts should move to a new district. 

All the while, he ensured that the contiguity and compactness of each newly drawn district adhered to federal and state standards of size and demographics. In all, Chappell’s map made changes to three Senate districts.

“It was a matter of taking all these puzzle pieces of the precincts and placing them together in ways that make sense,” Chappell said.

After the two nights he spent on the project, he emailed his research to Beth Orlansky, the advocacy director at the Mississippi Center for Justice. A few weeks later, Jackson attorney Rob McDuff and attorneys at the center used Chappell’s research to locate plaintiffs and draft a federal lawsuit.

“John absolutely was the initiating factor in getting us to do this,” Orlansky said. “He had done some research, pulling data and looking at numbers. Rob McDuff, who we work closely with, has a long history of doing these redistricting cases. Rob looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, there’s something here.'”

It appears Chappell’s work paid off. This month, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that Senate District 22, currently held by Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, violated the Voting Rights Act because it “does not afford the plaintiffs ‘an equal opportunity to participate in the political processes and to elect candidates of their choice.'” Reeves ordered the Legislature to redraw the district by April 3. 

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Reeves’ ruling days later. The ruling also gave candidates until April 12 to qualify to run in the districts affected by the redrawing.

A plan the state Senate adopted Tuesday moves African American voters from Delta-based District 13 to District 22 in order to comply with the federal court order and must also be approved by the House and federal courts.

Under that proposal, which the House could take up as early as Wednesday, the African American voting age population in District 22 will increase from 50.77 percent to 58.13 percent. In District 13, the black voting age population will decrease from 69.27 percent to 61.84 percent.

The plan will move five precincts in Bolivar County from District 22 to District 13 and will move three precincts in Sunflower County from District 13 to District 22.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale

Clarke, the current senator from District 22, is white and chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He announced earlier this year that he is running for state treasurer, a political move he said was inspired, in part, by the federal lawsuit.

Senate Pro Tempore Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, who presented the proposal to senators said, it was “the most logical proposal that has the least impact on senators and on precincts.”

Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, who represents District 13, also spoke in favor of the plan. Like Clarke, he is not running for re-election, opting to run instead for Central District Transportation commissioner. His daughter is running for the District 13 seat. Simmons said he believes that an African American candidate would have a chance to win election in both redrawn districts.

The 52-member Senate has 15 black majority districts, including the current District 22. But plaintiffs argued that the elongated District 22 that had no base made it difficult for an African American candidate to win elections. There are currently 13 African Americans serving in the Senate.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was Joseph Thomas, who ran and lost an election for the District 22 post and has qualified to run for the post again this year.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Ole Miss Student John Chappell

Chappell, who is involved in campus activism, including as one of the students who devised a plan to have a campus Confederate monument moved to a cemetery, majors in international studies and Arabic. After he graduates in May, he will pursue a master’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University.

Though the New Mexico native expects his career to be internationally oriented, Chappell said he feels Mississippi has shaped his worldview: “I feel like I owe Mississippi a lot and want to figure out ways to give back.”

“There was always a little hope that this could go all the way, but seeing it progress has been incredible. To think it started working late into the night at a laptop, hand drawing these districts with a marker on something I printed off at my printer at home, it’s incredible,” he said.

Chappell continued: “It also shows that sometimes you just have to do it. I’m in the right place at the right time and I know some of the right things, and let’s see where that takes me. Put some time into it, do the best work I can given what I’ve got, and then put it in the hands of someone who can take it to the finish line.”

Contributing: Bobby Harrison