Will Lowndes County lose a representative in the Mississippi Legislature? Will a redistricting plan be approved before the June 1 qualifying deadline for elections?
Questions remain for Lowndes County”s legislative and congressional future, but the redistricting process begins Saturday with hearings to collect public input.
The public hearings will be held in Columbus, at 3 p.m., at the Parkinson Auditorium on the Mississippi University for Women campus, and in Starkville, at 10:30 a.m. in the Colvard Union Ballroom at Mississippi State University.
Redistricting is the process of redrawing state legislative and congressional district boundaries. The process is completed by state legislatures every 10 years following the U.S. census.
Whether a county loses, gains or retains all its representatives is dependent on whether the county has lost, gained or retained its population numbers, which will not be available in Mississippi until about mid-February.
Noting the only population numbers currently available are from 2009 estimates, John C. Stennis Institute of Government Director Dr. Marty Wiseman believes Lowndes County likely will be impacted with a loss.
“You”ve lost population,” he explained, noting the state Legislature is “fixed” with 122 members in the House of Representatives and 52 members in the Senate, and both houses are based on population counts. “The percentage (of population lost in Lowndes County) was low, but it”s still a loss. As a population swells, the (Senate and House) seats follow the population.”
Because the number of legislators is set, counties showing large gains in population — like DeSoto, Rankin, Madison and Lamar counties — likely will gain representatives moved from counties with no gains or population losses, like counties in the Delta portion of the state, which have “uniformly dropped like a rock,” in population numbers, Wiseman said.
“The growth is in whiter, Republican areas of the state,” he added. “You probably will see some (political) party impact. Race still does make a difference, obviously, when you look at voting patterns.”
Lowndes County”s decrease in population likely will lead to expanded districts, Wiseman estimated.
“Territory will get bigger to take in a few more people,” he said, referring especially to the districts of Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, and Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, whose district currently includes parts of Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties. “It all depends on how comfortable they”ll feel in areas in which they haven”t run as a candidate before. But there will be an effect; there”s no doubt about that.”
“I don”t know that we”re going to (lose a legislator),” said Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins. “Obviously, the more local members we have in the Legislature, I think the better off we are (in terms of economic development). Obviously, we”d rather keep what we have or gain more.”
“I don”t think so,” Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, said, when asked if Lowndes County will lose a representative. “We”re down about 1,900 people, but I don”t think we”re going to lose a representative in the deal. I think you”re going to have about the same.”
“No, I don”t think so,” said Chism. “I think we will all be rearranged.”
Chism estimated Rep. David Gibbs, D-West Point, whose district includes portions of Clay, Lowndes and Monroe counties, and Rep. Jimmy Puckett, D-Amory, whose district includes portions of Lowndes and Monroe counties may be lost, if any are lost.
“They represent such a small area (of the county, now),” he explained, noting himself, Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, and Smith, are the “main ones” for Lowndes County.
“It looks like the Columbus/Lowndes County area has not changed significantly,” Puckett said, noting he based his estimate only on “preliminary” population numbers. “Our area looks like it”s pretty stable and has not changed. But who knows at this time?”
In 1990, local legislators ran for election in their existing districts and then, a year later, were forced to run for election again in new districts, because a redistricting plan was not approved — by the Mississippi House and Senate — before the qualifying deadlines for election primaries of 1990.
The qualifying deadline for 2011 elections was March 1, but legislators already have moved the deadline to June 1, in anticipation of not receiving census data relevant to redistricting until mid-February.
“When an election hits on a year Census data comes out, it makes things very, very tight,” Wiseman said. “And (the House and Senate) are going to have to be pretty much perfect the first time (with their redistricting plans).”
Using the Census data, each legislative body will draw and approve its own redistricting plan, then be asked to approve the plan of the other body to reach a mutual plan.
“Usually each house rubber-stamps what the other house does, but things have changed in this two-party world of ours,” Wiseman said, noting the Senate may not pass the House version of a plan and the House may not pass the Senate version of a plan, in which case the issue will be decided in the judicial system, as in 1990.
“It”s not out of the question,” he said of elected officials running for election twice in two years. “It”s a worst-case scenario. It”s more than likely senators and representatives will find a way to avoid that. It will be interesting to look at to see how much party ideology trumps the efficiency of running a plan and getting it over with.”
A redistricting plan requires approval of the United States Department of Justice; if a plan reflects an effort to favor one political party over another, it can be appealed.
Legislators recognize the need to expedite approval of a redistricting plan to spare themselves the pain of going through two elections.
“I think it”s very important we get it done as soon as possible,” said Puckett. “We certainly don”t want to have to run under the old district plan and turn around and have to do it again. We hope it will just be one election and not two”.
“I was there, in 1990, when they did this thing and we couldn”t get through, because the Justice Department wouldn”t approve (a redistricting plan),” Brown recalled. “I don”t know whether that will happen this time, but it”s a possibility. We trying to expedite things by having these hearings now.”
“Certainly, this is an election year and nobody wants to run two years in a row,” said Chism, noting avoiding party imbalances is most important. “The goal is to get it done, so we”ll be able to qualify for the election, with primaries in August. However, we”re not going to throw the baby out with the bath water. If they (redistrict unfairly) again, I”d just as soon have to run twice or let a judge draw the lines.
“I hope (redistricting) is fair, but on the 10-person House redistricting committee, there are nine Democrats and one Republican,” he added. “They sure aren”t starting off fair. On the Senate side, they”ve got five Democrats and five Republicans (on the redistricting committee). It sounds like they want to be more fair than we are.”
Ellis, whose district covers portions of Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, Harrison, whose district is Lowndes County, Smith, whose district is Lowndes County, and Gibbs could not be reached for comment for this story.
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