Mississippi Today’s Adam Ganucheau and Bobby Harrison break down the redistricting process, which Mississippi lawmakers will commence during the 2022 legislative session.

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Adam Ganucheau: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. I’m your host, Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. From breaking news to  political strategy to interviews with candidates and elected officials, we’ll bring you perspectives and context that helps you cut through the noise and understand all sides of the story. 

Joining us today is my colleague Bobby Harrison. Bobby, thanks for being here.

Bobby Harrison: [00:00:33] Hey Adam, how you doing? 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:00:34] I’m all right. Well, you know, thinking this podcast this week and you had a story that I think, you know , it’s time for us to kind of start giving a lot more attention to. 

It’s about redistricting. I think your story this week was that the legislative committee in charge of redistricting has announced that they’re going to hold several hearings across the state over the next month, or so— maybe a couple months— to basically hear from the public about redistricting.  Just tell us a little about that story.

Bobby Harrison: [00:00:59] Well, yeah, it comes around every 10 years— redistricting does with the, you know, 10 year Census. After that Census data is released. The state is required on the federal and also state law to change the districts for their state legislative and Senate seats and for the U.S. congressional seats to match the population found by the Census.

I don’t know if we’ll  get into it as much, but it’s important to point out that on a local level supervisors, supervisor districts—this affects supervisor districts, city, council and board of aldermen district. So all that’s going to be going on and then over the next year or so, but, you know, we will be focusing mainly  on the legislative redistricting in the congressional districts. 

And those hearings you talked about, they start in August and people have a opportunity to offer input,  why they think that, you know, that DeSoto County shouldn’t be placed in parts of DeSoto County for— I’m just giving a for instance— shouldn’t be placed in the second congressional district that is currently held by Bennie Thompson or why parts of DeSoto County should be placed in Bennie Thompson’s district. You know, in the same thing  will be going on in the 122 House seats in the state Legislature and the 52 Senate seats.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:02:08] Yeah, I guess, you know, thinking about redistricting, it’s important for several reasons. I think, you know, arguably the chief reason is because of how the districts are drawn typically could affect how policies later pass. So thinking about just the Legislature, now you mentioned, of course we’ll be zoned in on the legislative redistricting, but also the federal congressional district redistricting as well.

But what we’re thinking about just legislative, take that for instance. Right now you know how they draw those districts matters because you know, they could, you know, Republicans who have the control right now. So in theory, they kind of have the say of how these districts are redrawn to a certain They could draw districts that favor their party and they will. I mean, that’s how this works. The party in control gets to draw the districts so they will draw the districts to give their party you know, the majority in the Legislature. So of course that matters because then, you know, when it comes to election season over the next 10 years, you know, you only have a limited amount  of Democrats who could possibly be elected to sort of counter the Republican majority.

And that also obviously affects policy. I mean,  that’s basically a decent summary of why it’s important in that way.

Bobby Harrison: [00:03:20]  And not only policy, but just, you know, who’s in charge.  The prime example of that was if you go back to 2010, which was the last redistricting. The House and Senate was planning to do it during the 2011 legislative session to have the new districts to run in later on that year. Now, what normally has happened is the House passes this plan, the Senate passes this plan, and then each side passes the other side’s plan, but they don’t get into the weeds of, you know, why  they don’t like to plan for the side. And the Democrat majority in the House passed this plan.

And a key thing happened. Phil Bryant,  later governor then lieutenant governor, would not pass the House Democrats’ plan because the plan was drawn to help Democrats. And their theory was we were going to delay and the federal court said they could pass the plan after the 2011 election. And that was a key point because in the past, the federal courts have said, you know, “As soon as you can pass a plan, you got to pass it or we’ll draw a plan to match Census data.”

But the federal courts didn’t do it that year. And so the House and Senate ran under the old plans in 2011. The Republicans barely won the House that year by a slim majority, but they had the majority. And later in the 2012 session, after that, they passed a plan that really helped them. And that led to the super majority that they were able to garner in the coming years because they passed the plan that really helped their side win. If the House Democrats’ plan had been passed in 2011, then there’s a, you know, there’s at least a possibility that that Democrats could have you know, held on to control a little longer in a House, but it didn’t work that way.

I hope that was clear.  

Adam Ganucheau: [00:04:58] It was, yeah. Yeah. You know, there are all those considerations, there are also considerations of race, so it’s not just party it’s race and that’s where the federal government often comes in and approves or rejects certain districts and how they’re drawn, right?

Bobby Harrison: [00:05:12] Yeah. And you know, when I was growing up, you know, believe it or not the, the power structure, Mississippi’s political power structure was not taking race into account. They were taken into account, but they were taken into account in a reverse way. They were trying to prevent African Americans from holding office.

Now I remember lawsuits when I was growing up and they determined one man, one vote. You don’t hear that as often now, but that’s what redistricting is. You know, the districts are supposed to be almost exactly equal in population so that somebody in one district, you know, cause you have a smaller population in one district that sorta alters the equal power from across the state.

So that one man, one vote issue came up and that’s when, you know, the lawsuits started. You know, African-American, small number of legislators began filing lawsuits saying we deserve a larger slice of the pie if you will. And the federal government stepped in and said that the districts have to kind of represent the demographics of the state to a certain extent. And that’s kind of where we are now. And so you could argue that because of the Supreme Court rulings that the federal government does not get as involved in redistricting and the states are free to do a little bit more.

 But there is also court rulings that say, you know, once you have a certain number of  black districts, you cannot regress, you can not do away with those districts. So there’s a certain number of African-American districts in the House and Senate. And those districts would have to kind of be as many or maybe perhaps more in the redistricting process.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:06:42] Sure. You know, Mississippi of course has the highest percentage of black residents of any state in the country. So this is obviously, it’s not just white and black, but obviously this is an issue that has been important to your point, Bobby, for a long time in Mississippi and has been treated as such certainly by the federal government.

And as recently, by the way that the federal courts ruled, what was that— three or four years ago that one of the Senate districts in Mississippi had been improperly drawn and the federal courts basically mandated the state Legislature redraw that district before the last election. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:07:10] Yeah. And  when they filed that lawsuit, it was a group including Ron McDuff and others who filed that lawsuit saying that that district was gerrymandered to elect a white Republican, if you will, in a predominantly African-American area, where you know those people  vote Democrat and it was just drawn.

If you look  at the map, I think the district was 102 miles long. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:07:32] It was a crazy district.

Bobby Harrison: [00:07:33] Went through several counties, started in Madison and ended way up in the Delta.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:07:38] In Cleveland, if I recall correctly. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:07:41] The federal court said that that was a gerrymandered district designed to dilute black voting strength. And so it was redrawn and I just thought, “Why are they doing that? You know, it’s so late in the process.” But the key reason  they did it was that it created another African-American district. And  as I said, when they do redistricting this year, they have to take that into account and  it’s hard to regress.

You can’t go back and reduce the number of African-American districts. So, that was a key victory, as you will, for racial diversity in the state and the Mississippi Legislature. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:08:13] Sure, sure. Just the practical reality of how this all works, explain to us the process in the Legislature of how they draw these districts and how they’re ultimately approved.

Bobby Harrison: [00:08:24] Will Stribling and I both, I think, wrote stories about the fact that we got the preliminary Census numbers I think back in April. And it showed that, you know, Mississippi is  one of only three states in the nation to lose population. We didn’t lose a lot of population, but the fact we lost population is kind of a big deal.

 But the state is scheduled to get the the final number, the real detailed data in September. And after they get those numbers the redistricting committee was start working with that. And the first thing they’re gonna do is try to do congressional redistricting and redraw those for U.S.  congressional districts early into 2022 session because you know there’s going to be  congressional elections in 2022.

 And the qualifying deadline is March 1, I believe. So there’s going to be just not much time to redraw those districts so they have to do that first. And then after that, sometime late in the session they’ll start working to redraw the legislative districts. You know, in the House, Jim Beckett, veteran House member from Bruce in Calhoun County, he’s the chair on the House side. And Dean Kirby, the Senate pro tem from over in Rankin County, is a chair on the Senate side.  And what they’ve done in the past is they meet with all the legislators and kind of go over their districts, what concerns that each legislator has and they try to accommodate those concerns to a certain extent, depending on, you know, whether you’re on the ends or the outs of the power structure.

And so they’ll do that. And you know, this is one area where the state doesn’t spare an expense. The state has a, you know, a top notch computer system, good staff to work on these redistricting plans. The public can actually make an appointment and go in and draw their own districts if they so choose.

And it’s kind of cool. I’ve done that before just to do it and I mean, it’s actually pretty easy to do. The computer system is so advanced and so that will begin  to redraw the 122 House seats. And  52 Senate seats sometime, probably late in the 2021 session. But they’re going to have plenty of time, of course, because the next round of state elections where the House and Senate members will be on the ballot won’t be until 2023. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:10:24] Okay. Sure. So, and the expectation is that they have to do the congressional districts this year soon. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:10:33] Well, I’m getting my dates right wrong, but they have to do them in the 2022 session.

And theoretically, they could wait till 2023 session to do the House and Senate, the legislative districts, but most likely they’ll try to do them in the 2022 session. And you said they had to do them if you could recall. And we reported on this too. It’s come up in a couple of stories.

In 2000, the 2000 Census when we lost a congressional seat. And after the 2010 census, the House and Senate could not come up with a plan. And those plans were actually drawn by the federal court. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:11:04] Okay. Yeah, sure. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:11:06] But I think it’s safe to say that the leadership in the House and Senate do not want the legislative plans to be drawn by the federal courts.

They want to have the control of that and do that. And you know, this is kind of the time when bare-knuckled politics, especially behind the scenes comes into play because you know, you’re going to have, you know, because there’s population shifts there.  Especially in the Delta, there’s population that has been lost and that’s an area where, you know, there’s a high African-American population.

So, you know, you got two things going on. You got the issue. I talked about regression where you don’t want, you can’t reduce the number of African-American districts . You got to go out and find those African-Americans in other areas of the state because just, you know, quite frankly, the Delta is losing population.

And so that’s also going to be an issue in the congressional redistricting. And so this is where, you know, there’s going to be somebody somewhere, some legislator who’s probably going to be put in a district with another legislator. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:12:01] Sure.

Bobby Harrison: [00:12:02] And so, you know, this is kind of where bare knuckle politics come into play.

And, you know, you know, somebody’s district is going to be, as they say “absorbed” by somebody else. And that person can look at the numbers and see where his people are and everything and knows he doesn’t have  much of a chance to win. So it’s going to probably lead to some retirements in the Legislature.

And it’s going to lead to some hard feelings, but the leadership will try to accommodate most of the Republicans. And keep in mind that issue of regression and so they’re kind of walking a fine line. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:12:32] Sure. Is there any horse trading that goes on behind the scenes on, you know, “Don’t redraw my district and I’ll do X for you?” or “draw me out of my district,” rather. Not redraw.

Bobby Harrison: [00:12:39] Yeah. You know, that’s a big carrot or a stick  depending on how you look at it. You know, there’s a key vote coming up and at the same time redistricting is, you know, or not just at the same time, but, for the past two years, legislators have known redistricting is coming up.

So, you know, that’s kind of an issue that they don’t want to offend that leadership.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:12:58] On their best behavior. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:12:59] Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Right now we have 76 Republicans and 44 Democrats in the House. And  in the Senate, two Democrats have just resigned, but those are probably Democratic seats, but right now we have 36 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:13:14] Yeah. Well obviously Republican, super majority in both chambers. I don’t suspect they’re going to do anything to draw themselves out of that super majority with this next redistricting. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:13:24] No, but you know, there might be a Republican here or there that the leadership might want to make it a little bit more difficult for them to win reelection. And so you might look for those subtle redrawn districts to come up, you know this year or next year when they start doing this process. You might be able to tell who  the legislative leadership really doesn’t like. 

Adam Ganucheau: [00:13:41] We can speculate on some of that now, but we’re not gonna touch that. Bobby, it’s gonna be interesting to watch. I mean, it’s, it’s it’s a huge story. You’ve written about how this next legislative session could be a historic one for several reasons. This one is near the top of that list. You know, thanks for sitting down with us and walking us through it.

It’s kind of a complicated topic and time and action that the Legislature takes, but it’s just vitally important I think to the future of the state. So thanks for helping break it down for us and thanks for covering it. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:14:07] Enjoyed it. Thanks.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:14:15] As we cover the biggest political stories in this state you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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Subscribe to our weekly podcast on your favorite podcast app or stream episodes online at MississippiToday.org/the-other-side. For the Mississippi Today team, I’m Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side is produced by Mississippi Today and engineered by Blue Sky Studios. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.