A three-judge federal panel’s decision last week not to redraw House and Senate districts for the Mississippi Legislature nor order special elections next year is best for the state given the circumstances.
That doesn’t mean the Legislature properly and timely discharged its responsibility on redistricting, however.
The Mississippi NAACP had asked the judges to throw out the redistricting plan based on the 2010 census that lawmakers passed in the 2012 session. It had also asked for new elections in 2013, pointing out – correctly – that lawmakers are currently serving from districts with significant differences in population.
The population disparities exist because the current districts are based on the 2000 census. Significant population shifts have occurred since then, but partisan differences in the 2011 Legislature prevented adoption of a redistricting plan that would have corrected those disparities for last year’s elections. Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate and they couldn’t agree on a plan.
Republicans won majorities in both chambers last year and were able to get the plan they favored through this year, but it isn’t scheduled to go into effect until the 2015 elections.
It’s not good that the current districts are out of sync with the constitutional one-person, one-vote mandate, but another round of elections would have been a great expense – not to mention a most unwelcome extra political cycle – to both voter-taxpayers and candidates. The state didn’t need that.
And even though many Democratic legislators objected to the plan passed this year as diluting minority voting strength, the U.S. Justice Department approved it under provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act. The argument against it didn’t hold; it favors Republicans, but that happens whichever party is in control. It broke up some longtime communities of interest, but then most redistricting plans upset one apple cart or another.
In short, there was no compelling reason for the court to throw out the plan and write its own. Only under extraordinary circumstances should the courts step in and do the Legislature’s job for it.
That said, if the 2011 Legislature had done its job, these questions – and the uncertainty that lingered until last week – would be moot.