JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers soon will be asked to vote on new configurations for their own House and Senate districts.
It’s a politically sensitive task that could shape their own re-election prospects — and the prospects of their colleagues and their political parties — for the coming decade.
The redistricting chairmen, Sen. Merle Flowers of Southaven and Rep. Bill Denny of Jackson, told The Associated Press that proposed new maps will be released within the next two weeks and should quickly come up for a vote in each chamber.
Flowers and Denny, both Republicans, said they’ve been meeting privately the past couple of months with demographers, attorneys and other lawmakers, both individually and in groups, to try to draw districts that would make most lawmakers happy.
The 122 districts in the House and 52 in the Senate have to be updated after each Census to account for population changes, and drawing new maps is not a simple task.
In areas where population is shrinking, such as the Delta and parts of metro Jackson, some current districts will be collapsed to make way for new districts in DeSoto County and other areas that have had significant growth.
“You put the districts where the folks are,” Flowers said.
Legislators try to draw districts that are compact. They also try to avoid splitting precincts between different districts.
And, because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the U.S. Justice Department must approve the new maps to ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted.
“I tell my members all the time: ‘Look, we can sit here and draw everything that makes everybody happy. I’m making this drawing for the Justice Department,”‘ Denny said.
Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black.
The House currently has 39 majority-black districts, or 32 percent of the 122 seats. A House redistricting plan that ultimately failed in 2011, which was drawn by a Democratic chairman, would have increased that to 44 seats, or 36 percent.
The Senate currently has 12 majority-black districts, or 24 percent of the 52 seats. A Senate plan the ultimately failed in 2011, drawn by a different Republican chairman, would have increased that to 15 seats, or 29 percent
The House and Senate argued for several weeks before ending their 2011 session without adopting new maps. It was a state election year, and the political pressure was more intense than it is now.
Traditionally, each chamber redraws its own map and the other chamber rubber-stamps that decision.
However, in 2011, Republican Phil Bryant, who was presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor, insisted that the Republican-controlled Senate should have a say in drawing a new map for what was then a Democrat-controlled House. Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Billy McCoy, balked. The session ended with the two chambers at a stalemate and no maps adopted.