Gerrymandering lawsuit: A federal appeals court declined to rule before ballots were printed. Plaintiffs see that as a hopeful sign

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Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale

Plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit claiming the 102-mile long state Senate District 22 dilutes the strength of African American voters are hoping no news is good news.

A three judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in the case on June 11, has not yet ruled on whether to reverse a lower court order that the districts be redrawn in a manner to give black voters a better chance to elect the candidate of their choice.

Rob McDuff, one of the attorneys representing a group of Mississippi voters, said the fact that the sample ballot already has been printed by the Secretary of State’s office as mandated by state law, gives him reason to believe the court will not reverse the decision of U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves. Gov. Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann had appealed Reeves’ decision and, through attorneys, argued before the three judge panel that the ruling be reversed.

“The governor and secretary of state asked the Court of Appeals to restore the old districts by the June 17 ballot deadline,” McDuff said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen. Although we have no formal ruling yet from the Court of Appeals, the new plan remains in place as the ballots are printed for the upcoming election.”

This Monday was the deadline for the Secretary of State’s office to print the sample ballot, which is now posted on the agency’s web site. Ballots for absentee voters are supposed to be available by the next Monday. A reversal by the 5th Circuit at this point would force the state and local election officials to reprint ballots, and possibly candidates would be given time to re-qualify to run in the two Senate districts impacted by the ruling.

Leah Rupp Smith, a spokesperson for Hosemann, said, “we are moving forward with the district lines as drawn by the Legislature in the 2019 regular session. When the court comes to its conclusion, we will follow its instructions as to how to move forward.”

Late in the 2019 session, the Legislature, based on Reeves’ order, redrew the district to increase the African American majority in District 22.

Bryant and Hosemann opted to appeal Reeves’ decision.

In redrawing the district to adhere to Reeves’ decision, the Legislature added African American voters from Sunflower County to District 22 and removed primarily white voting precincts in Bolivar County from the district and placed them in District 13. The result, according to the people who filed the lawsuit, was that African Americans had chances to maintain a black senator in District 13 and add one in District 22.

The district, spanning parts of six counties, was drawn in the 2012 legislative session. In 2012, newly elected Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and his redistricting team faced a dilemma in how to protect his newly named Appropriations chairman – Republican Buck Clarke.

In redistricting, the Senate had to find additional people to place in Clarke’s Delta-centrist District 22 to adhere to population shifts found by the 2010 Census.

The only problem was that the district was surrounded primarily by African Americans who normally vote Democratic.

In an effort to protect Clarke, the Senate opted to steer the already expansive district south into fast growing, affluent Madison County. The result was a district that was more than 100 miles long and ran from Bolivar County in the heart of the Delta into Madison, a heavily Republican Jackson suburb.

While Clarke won re-election in the district in 2015, he is now running statewide for treasurer.

The candidates qualified to run in District 22 are Joseph Thomas, Mark Buckner Sr. Ruffin Smith, Ermea “EJ” Russell and Colton Thornton. The Republicans are Hayes Dent and Dwayne Self while the independents are Terrance Edison Jr. and Calvin Stewart.

In District 13, the Democrats who qualified are Carl Brinkley, Tony G. Anderson, Charles Modley, Sarita M. Simmons and John Marshall Alexander.  B.C. Hammond also is running in the District 13 election as a Republican.

Thomas, one of the plaintiffs in the case, lost to Clarke in 2015.