SID SALTER: Redistricting fights transcend mere partisan political battles

By Sid Salter

Democrats and Republicans alike continue to offer assurances that the Mississippi Legislature will complete their work on redistricting in a manner that is timely and conducive to state voters only having to contend with one round of state legislative elections in 2011 rather than one election this year and another in 2012 when legal battles over redistricting have been concluded.
While those assurances are no doubt sincere, the challenges confronting lawmakers suggest a much different outcome.
Back in 1990, Mississippi lawmakers could not reach consensus on drawing new state legislative districts because of concerns over the House speaker’s election that would follow the 1991 general election and the racial and partisan makeup of legislative districts.
The result? Legislators were forced to run in their old legislative districts in the 1991 general election and again in new legislative districts in a 1992 special election.
Now, it’s 2011 and wonder of wonders, there are still concerns over the next House speaker’s race and over the racial and partisan makeup of legislative districts.
Lawmakers are charged with redrawing district lines for 122 districts in the state House of Representatives and 52 state Senate districts in a manner consistent with population changes indicated by the data from the 2010 Census. That task must be completed by April 1 to allow for a minimum 60 days for the U.S. Justice Department to review and approve the state’s plan. That’s called “pre-clearance.”
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has since enactment required that all or part of 16 mostly Southern states (and parts of New York, California and a few other non-Southern states) with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get U.S. Justice Department “pre?clearance” of any changes in voting procedures, district line or voting practices.
Section 5 has been successful in rooting out voter discrimination ? so much so that it’s difficult to find clear current examples of ongoing discrimination – so to a degree, the law worked so well as for some to question the continued need for it, hence the legal challenge now before the high court.
In the long interim since 1965, the Supreme Court has moved to a posture in which the court requires that when Congress enacts laws regulating unconstitutional conduct by the states, it must provide specific evidence that the states are indeed violating the constitution.
Clearly, Mississippi’s demographics suggest that the state should have made more progress in moving away from discrimination in elections. Mississippi is about 38 percent African-American while the nation has a black population percentage less than a third that total.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said this week that he was “offended” by Mississippi’s inclusion in the list of Section 5 states and resented “having the Obama Justice Department telling us how to create our legislative districts in Mississippi.” Bryant pointed to the state’s status as having the largest number of African-American elected officials in the nation as evidence that the state no longer needed federal oversight.
Bryant pointed to modern-era political examples like Mayor James Young, the African-American mayor of Philadelphia and Democratic state Sen. Eric Powell, the first black person ever elected to the state legislature from a substantially majority white rural district, as evidence that pre-clearance requirements.
But for all the focus on race, the more pressing political questions that threaten getting redistricting done on time are partisan considerations and efforts to either protect or target incumbents. The plans revealed this week have clear examples of cutting incumbents out of their districts, pitting some against each other and carving challengers out of existing districts to protect incumbents.
It is those considerations that will tempt too many in the process to file lawsuits. The more likely litigants over the 2011 redistricting maps are likely to be Republicans eyeing the next House speaker’s race.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.