JACKSON — Fast-growing and relatively affluent suburbs could gain representation in the Mississippi Legislature, while economically struggling areas with shrinking populations could lose some seats.
That’s how things are shaping up as state lawmakers prepare for redistricting in 2011.
Officials in the fastest-growing county in the state, DeSoto, say they anticipate picking up at least one additional seat in the 122-member House and one more in the 52-member Senate. DeSoto now has all or part of six House districts and two entire Senate districts.
“One person, one vote — for that to work, we need more representation,” Hernando’s Republican mayor, Chip Johnson, said in a phone interview Monday.
DeSoto County is in the northwestern corner of Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tenn. The county had a population of 107,199 in 2000, and the Census Bureau estimated the population at 158,719 in 2009. The increase of 51,520 means DeSoto County added more residents than most of the 81 counties even have.
“People are going to go where the jobs are,” Johnson said.
Among the areas that could lose seats in redistricting is Washington County, which saw its population drop from 62,977 in 2000 to estimated 54,616 in 2009. That’s a decrease of 8,361.
Betty Lynn Cameron, director of the Main Street economic development program in Greenville, said she’s concerned about the impoverished Delta losing representation at the state Capitol.
“It’s a sad fact of life that we have lost population,” Cameron said Monday. “There are a number of reasons for that. Jobs have a lot to do with that. We have not picked up in our economic development swing yet like I hope we will in the future.”
Coastal Harrison County, which was pummeled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had the largest population drop. Census figures show Harrison County went from 189,601 residents in 2000 to an estimated 181,191 in 2009. That’s a drop of 8,410. Some people are still rebuilding, and it’s unclear whether the county will see an increase when the final 2010 figures are released; lawmakers expect to receive the numbers in February.
Top members of the Mississippi House and Senate are holding a series of public hearings the next few weeks to gather ideas about how to configure legislative district lines.
Lawmakers will use the 2010 Census numbers to try to draw districts roughly balanced by population, but the head count won’t be the only consideration. Districts are supposed to be relatively compact and to represent “communities of interest,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who chairs the House redistricting committee.
The U.S. Justice Department also will check the Mississippi redistricting plan to ensure that it doesn’t dilute minorities’ voting strength. That will be a challenge, since many of shrinking or stagnant counties also have high percentages of black residents.
Reynolds said Monday that while some counties will move into different House or Senate districts, the new configurations will still ensure everyone in the state has a voice.
“I don’t think we need to be like Chicken Little and say, ‘The sky is falling,'” Reynolds said.
Republican Terry Burton of Newton, who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said lawmakers will try to minimize the number of split precincts where some residents vote on one legislative district while their neighbors vote in another at the same location.
“It’s confusing to the voters and it’s a headache to the circuit clerks and the election commissioners and everyone involved,” Burton said.
All legislative seats are up for election in 2011. Candidates’ qualifying deadline is next June, with the general election in November.
Public hearings set for Mississippi redistricting
Here’s the schedule for public hearings Mississippi lawmakers are holding about redistricting:
Monday: 6 p.m. at Coahoma Community College, Pinnacle Building, Clarksdale.
Tuesday: 6 p.m. at Mississippi Valley State University, Science and Technology Building Auditorium, Itta Bena.
Thursday: 6 p.m. at the University of Mississippi, Fulton Chapel, Oxford.
Friday: 6 p.m. at Itawamba Community College, W.L. Benjamin Fine Arts Building, Fulton.
Saturday: 10:30 a.m. at Mississippi State University, Colvard Union Ballroom, Starkville; and 3 p.m. at Mississippi University for Women, Parkinson Auditorium, Columbus.
Aug. 23: 6 p.m. at Meridian Community College, Emma McCain Fine Arts Building, Meridian.
Aug. 25: 6 p.m. at University of Southern Mississippi, Thad Cochran Center Ballroom 1, Hattiesburg.
Aug. 26: 6 p.m. at Gulf Coast Community College, Jefferson Davis Fine Arts Auditorium, Gulfport.
Sept. 13: 6 p.m. at Southwest Mississippi Community College, Hurst Fine Arts Building, Summit.
Sept. 14: 6 p.m. at Alcorn State University Natchez Campus, Graduate Business Programs Lecture Hall, Natchez.
Sept. 15: 6 p.m. at the Hinds County Courthouse, Courtroom 1, Jackson.
Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press