Efforts to increase the number of majority-Black legislative districts were thwarted Tuesday by the Republican majorities of the House and Senate.
The redistricting plans developed by the Legislature’s Republican majorities were approved Tuesday. The House approved its leadership’s redistricting plan 81-37 with most of the chamber’s Democrats voting against the proposal.
The Senate vote — 37-5 to approve — was more nuanced, and all Democrats voted for its final passage. But Black senators said the plan diluted Black voter strength and attempted unsuccessfully to amend it.
The main opposition to the Senate plan — and hours of debate on Tuesday — came from a few Republicans angered that the plan, because of population loss in southwest Mississippi, put Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, into a majority Black district.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, a close political ally of Sojourner, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the Senate map to help Sojourner and had heated debate with some fellow Republican senators after he accused them of “racial gerrymandering.” The five votes against the Senate plan were Republicans allied with McDaniel and Sojourner.
Sen. Kathy Chism, R-New Albany, said she prayed on the issue and God told her, “Child, I sent you to Jackson … as a Republican.”
“As a Republican I am concerned about the district’s increase in (Black voting age population) now being more than 60%,” Chism said. “That makes a Republican, pro-life district vulnerable to becoming a pro-choice Democrat district. It’s time we stand as Republicans for Republican principles.”
But other Republicans said the maps were redrawn fairly, based on population changes and law, and noted Sojourner’s district was essentially shifted to what will be a heavily Republican district in Rankin and Smith counties because of population growth there.
The two chambers are expected to rubberstamp the other chamber’s plan in the coming days and complete the redistricting process that must be conducted every 10 years to adhere to population shifts found by the decennial U.S. Census.
Black legislators in both chambers unsuccessfully offered amendments to increase the number of African American majority districts.
“All we are saying is let a redistricting plan reflect the population and people of Mississippi,” said Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who is the House minority leader. “We ought to be in this body in a balanced manner that takes care everybody in the state.”
The plan developed by the House and Senate Republican leadership maintained “the status quo” in terms of African American majority districts – 15 of the 52 seats in the Senate and 42 of 122 in the House.
“A map that maintains the status quo simply dilutes Black voting-strength in Mississippi,” said Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, the Senate minority leader. Simmons offered an amendment that was voted down to add an additional four Black majority districts in the Senate.
In the House, Johnson offered a plan that would have added five additional majority-Black districts in the House and 10 additional districts that provided African Americans more influence by increasing their numbers significantly. The House leadership plan has few districts with a Black population between 30% and 40%. Johnson’s plan would have significantly increased that number.
African American members said the plan offered by the leadership “packed” the Black population into fewer districts to dilute their strength.
“What we are trying to do is say you don’t have to pack all of the African Americans in one district,” Johnson said.
Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, who headed up the redistricting process in the House, countered, “I can tell you I think we did everything we could possibly do to draw districts fair to the members of the chamber, to the state and to the regions of the state.”
Under the leadership’s plans, 29% of the Senate districts are majority African American while 34% of the House districts are. Based on the 2020 Census, the state’s African American population is 38% while the white population is 59%. The remaining percentage fits in “other” categories including multiple racial groups, under the categories developed by the U.S. Census.