CHARLIE MITCHELL: Maybe Mississippi needs a new legislative system

By Charlie Mitchell

Government is our security blanket. It stands between us and anarchy. Because it brings order to civilization, we think of government as fixed, immutable, unchanging. Said another way, we may never need to summon a sheriff or a fire truck, but we are comforted by the assurance they will come if we call.
Most government buildings embody an image of permanence. Despite the antics that sometimes go on inside, the U.S. Capitol is about as solid a building as could be built. Same for the Mississippi Capitol. It’s an inspiring place to visit – granite, marble, mosaic floors, statues, portraits, brass push plates with an “M” on every door. All counties have at least one courthouse, usually the best-built building in town. Most city halls are also substantial.
Such craftsmanship is at odds with the fact that the structures and processes of government – when to have elections, who will be in charge of what, how to raise operational funds – were pulled, more or less, out of thin air by farmers and lawyers and merchants and printers meeting in buildings that were far less grand.
Most were well-educated. That is, they had read about experiments in democracy by Romans and Greeks. But when it came down to defining basic laws for the United States and, later, Mississippi, a lot of it was guesswork. (If you remember your seventh-grade history, the first attempt at the national level, called the Articles of Confederation, flopped after 12 years.)
Redistricting was defined in those early days as a process to keeping voting power balanced, to keep the people more in touch with their elected officials.
In Mississippi for the past 30 or so years, it has had the opposite effect. We’re scattered and disconnected.
At the national level (and back to the civics text), the decision was made to have a senate with two members from each state (to even things up between small states and large ones) and a house of representatives (to even things up according to population).
In Mississippi, the decision was also to have two lawmaking chambers, but both are apportioned according to population and, in recent years, race.
For the state Senate, Mississippi is divided into 52 parts.
For the state House, Mississippi is divided into 122 parts.
After every federal census, the Legislature is commanded to rearrange the lines to balance (or “apportion”) the population of each district as equally as possible and without splitting minority voting strength.
If this done, one citizen’s vote has the same weight as any other’s. (If one district has 100,000 people who vote, it takes 50,001 votes to be elected in a two-person race. If another district has 25,000 people who vote, it only takes 12,501 votes to win, so each vote in the smaller district has more muscle.)
Also, if requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are met, chambers of the Legislature will more likely reflect the racial composition of the state.
Decade after decade, because they inject politics where math and geography should prevail, the Mississippi Legislature has proved itself incapable of avoiding a complete morass when it comes to redistricting.
Key to this has been the use of computer-generated census enumeration districts to decide where lines should be as opposed to the old days when county lines, rivers, major roads and such were the reference points. This has created incredible confusion for elections officials who often have to prepare a dozen or more different ballot combinations for voting precincts that may only have a few hundred registered voters.
Lost in the process has been a sense of community among voters. Instead of a town or county having a representative or senator chosen to send to that stately Capitol, there can be two who regularly vote to cancel each other out.
All these esoteric considerations aside, there comes a time when we might want to step back and realize it doesn’t have to be this way.
How about a one-chambered Legislature as Nebraska has? A system with one senator from each of Mississippi’s 82 counties might increase the number of minorities in that chamber. Then each county could also have a representative and each municipality could have another one for every 20,000 residents.
A complete resetting of the alignment would require federal approval, but it would be a way to break out of the grind and the de facto disenfranchisement of thousands of would-be voters who opt out because they can’t identify with the system as is.
It takes guts to talk about starting from scratch. But if our revered forefathers could do it, so could we. We need government to work. We need our security blanket.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.