By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The House Republican majority, ignoring arguments that black voter strength would be diluted, pushed through its redistricting plan by a 70-49 vote Thursday.
The more crucial vote came on an alternative plan offered by Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel. That plan, presumably more favorable to Democrats, was defeated 66-54 on a near straight party line vote.
“We’re going to be spending some more time on this issue beyond today,” vowed Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, referring to an expected challenge to the Republican plan in federal court.
The issue ended up in federal court last year when the Legislature could not agree on a plan to redraw House and Senate districts. A three-judge federal panel ordered elections last year under the malapportioned districts.
Both Democrats and Republicans conceded during Thursday’s debate no one knows for sure whether the court would order new elections this year or allow members to serve a full four-year term under the current districts that violate the one person, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution.
Democrats seemed certain, though, that the Republican plan would be challenged in court. Much of the five hours spent on the issue appeared to be more of an effort to garner facts for a court challenge than a typical legislative debate.
House Apportionment and Elections Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, told members he was certain the plan would comply with state and federal laws.
He said he met with more than 110 of the 122 members, including an inordinate amount of time spent with black House members because of federal law mandating that black voter strength not be diluted.
He said there had been substantial population losses in areas with a high percentage of minorities, and because of that, he created black districts in other parts of the state. District 16 in south Lee County, for example, will increase from a black population of about 40 percent to 56 percent.
Denny’s plan has 42 black majority districts compared to the current 41. The plan the then-Democratic majority presented last session would have had 44 black majority districts.
But more important, according to Blackmon, is not the number of majority minority districts, but the fact the number of “black impact districts” had been lessened under Denny’s plan. Currently, there are six districts with a black population of more than 40 percent. Denny’s plan has one.
Blackmon said the courts OK’d districts drawn for political purposes, such as to increase Republican representation.
But he said in Mississippi, with its racial history, he doubted court approval for districts that “packed” a large number of blacks in a few districts and dispersed the rest where their numbers would be so small as to not have an impact. The fact that most blacks vote Democratic was secondary, Blackmon said.
Denny conceded he looked at past election results in redrawing the districts, but that he tried to be fair.
The plan would place three sets of incumbent Democrats in the same districts and would place incumbent Republicans and Democrats against each other in two other instances.
The Senate has yet to take up its redistricting plan.