By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The options for how the state’s year-and-a-half-old legislative redistricting battle will be resolved seem endless.
The U.S. Department of Justice currently is considering whether to approve plans passed by the 2012 Legislature to redraw the 122 House districts and 52 Senate districts.
The Republican leadership of the House and Senate is hoping the Justice Department preclears the plans, and a three-judge federal panel that got involved in 2011 when the Legislature was at an impasse will sign off on holding the next regularly scheduled elections in 2015 under the new plans.
But there are many other possibilities.
“There is no way to know” what the final outcome will be, admitted Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, who traveled to Washington in July to meet with the Justice Department about the Senate plan.
Burton, who headed the Senate redistricting effort in 2011 when the House and Senate could not agree because of partisan bickering, made the trip to D.C. after Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, who oversaw the effort in 2012 for the Senate, resigned from the Senate.
Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, the House Apportionment and Elections Committee chair, made the trip for the House leadership.
Both expressed confidence that the Justice Department would sign off on the plans. The Justice Department or the federal courts must approve all changes to Mississippi elections, under U.S. law.
Burton said of the meeting, “They don’t tip their hand one way or the other. I feel good about the Senate plan based on the questions they asked. But I don’t really know.”
If the Justice Department does not preclear the plans, there are a number of possible outcomes. First of all, the Justice Department could approve the redistricting plan of one chamber and reject the other.
And if one or both plans are rejected, the state could appeal to federal court in the District of Columbia or the Legislature could go back to work and try to correct the problems cited by the Justice Department.
Another possibility is that the three-judge federal panel in Mississippi that got involved in the issue in 2011 could draw districts or order the Legislature back to work.
And if the plans are approved, there is a possibility that the three-judge panel in Mississippi could order new elections under the new districts. Legislative elections were held in 2011 under malapportioned districts that did not take into account populations shifts found by the 2010 census.
A new round of elections, though, does not appear likely – at least not in 2012. Even if the Justice Department approves the new plans in the coming days, it would be difficult to schedule legislative elections for this year.
Burton said, “It could literally be any day” when the Justice Department announces its decision. “…My best guess is that it would be the end of September.”
But some groups are asking the Justice Department not to approve the plans. Black legislators have argued that the plans reduce the number of districts that have a large enough black population to impact the elections in those districts.
Many have sent letters of objections to the Justice Department. One is Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, who said the plans “diminish African-American influence” in the Legislature.
Sen. Bill Stone, D-Ashland, also has filed a protest over the Senate plan. It places his home of Benton County in a district with Union and portions of Pontotoc and splits Marshall, which has traditionally been paired with Benton, between DeSoto and Tate counties.
Flowers said at the time the changes were made to accommodate population growth in DeSoto County. But in a letter to the Justice Department, Stone wrote, the Senate plan “separates communities of interest.”
Public officials in the two counties – both on the county and municipal levels – sent similar letters of protest.
Buck said the Senate plan “destroys” Marshall County.
The Republican leadership has argued the plans take into account population shifts while not diluting black voter strength, so they should be approved.