This summer's elections will shape state government for the next four years, but what happens before anybody goes to a polling place in August will have a major impact.
The Mississippi Legislature last week received Census data, which means the process of redrawing legislative district boundaries will begin. It's the responsibility of lawmakers to redraw their own districts to take into account population shifts over the last 10 years, with the goal being roughly equal populations in the 122 House and 52 Senate districts.
The Legislature will also redraw the state's four congressional districts, but that's not apt to stir much controversy this time around, unlike the situation after the 2000 Census. The state had lost a congressional seat and five districts had to be shrunk to four, forcing two incumbents to run against each other.
Increased partisanship in the Legislature and a bitterly contested race for House speaker in 2008 have raised the redistricting stakes. There are now 69 Democrats and 53 Republicans in a House chamber that up until the past decade was thoroughly dominated by Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans hold a 26-25 advantage with one vacancy.
Redistricting will involve politics of many kinds as incumbents seek what's most politically advantageous for themselves, their party or their legislative faction. Some counties and cities, meanwhile, will weigh in with their own requests.
Additionally, the federal Voting Rights Act requires that there be no dilution of minority voting strength, which means that redistricting must take into account not only shifts in general population but where minorities are concentrated as well.
This requirement has produced mixed results. It's helped make the Mississippi Legislature much more representative of the state's population with black lawmakers make up more than a quarter of the membership. On the other hand, creating heavy black-majority districts also necessitates that other districts have much higher white percentages, meaning legislators in those districts have little incentive to pay attention to minority concerns.
The hope is that there will be more situations in the future like Senate District 4, where Sen. Eric Powell of Corinth in 2007 demonstrated for the first time that a black candidate can be elected in a majority-white district. That kind of progress should eventually eliminate the need for racially based gerrymandering.
But gerrymandering is nothing new in political redistricting; it has been with us since the early days of the republic. Redistricting has always been driven by politics, as it will be again this year in the Mississippi Legislature. The best we can hope for is that it will be accomplished by the lawmakers themselves, rather than the courts, and in a timely manner.