STARKVILLE — With super majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature, the reveal of the state’s new congressional redistricting plan by Republican leaders drew predictably partisan reviews and criticisms from Democrats.
Not everyone in the Mississippi Republican Party was happy, either, but generally the GOP has few legitimate complaints about how their party fares in the proposal.
One of the principal critiques of the new congressional maps is the expansion of the Second Congressional District to include Adams, Amite, Franklin, and Walthall counties to the district currently represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Bolton, the state’s senior U.S. House member who is serving his 13th term.
Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee and notably also chairs the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The proposed expansion of the Second District would have it run from Tunica County south along the Mississippi River to Wilkinson County. That fact is drawing descriptions like a “sprawling majority-Black district” from some observers. However, the addition of the four Southwest Mississippi counties to the proposed new Second District removes them from the present Third District.
The new Second District would stretch north and south from Tunica to Woodville — a driving distance of 284 miles. The present Third District now stretches northeast to southwest from Starkville to Woodville — a driving distance of 257 miles. Those same media voices weren’t moved in the past to note the existence of the present Third District as a “sprawling majority-White district” despite a difference of only 27 miles.
Make no mistake, Black Mississippians are right to be highly skeptical about congressional redistricting. Our state’s historical record is one in which as recently as 1966, legislators carved up the Mississippi Delta horizontally to keep Mississippi from having a single majority-Black congressional district.
It would take 20 years of rancorous lawsuits and federal intervention to produce the first Mississippi congressional district that would elect a Black representative in 1986. Rep. Thompson is only the second Black Mississippi congressman since Reconstruction.
But the fact is that there is less real concern about “sprawling districts” than there is over whether Thompson’s desire to have the entirety of Hinds County in the Second District and how that grates against incumbent Republican Third District Congressman Michael Guest’s desire to keep key northeast Jackson and southern Madison County GOP precincts in his district.
Democrats in the Mississippi Legislature also look at issues like the future of heavily Republican DeSoto County in congressional politics. Many there would like to see DeSoto kicked into the Second District with an eye toward making the First District more competitive for Democrats — an unlikely eventuality.
There are already ethics complaints filed by civil rights organization over alleged open meetings violations filed against the Joint Legislature Redistricting Committee. There are also rumbling of federal lawsuits challenging the committee’s plan. Federal lawsuits have been part of the redistricting landscape in Mississippi since the 1960s and that’s likely to continue in this cycle.
Most federal lawsuits over these matters center on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 has since enactment required that all or part of 16 mostly Southern states (and parts of New York, California, and a few other non-Southern states) with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get U.S. Justice Department “preclearance” of any changes in voting procedures, district line or voting practices.
Decades later, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 enforcement must be a national approach rather than a narrowly drawn safeguard in nine southern states or “the covered jurisdiction.”
While race still plays far too large a role in congressional redistricting battles, one sure measure of progress is the fact that most of the present disputes are based on whether the proposed maps protect or target incumbent congressmen or the current party in power in the four districts. Those are questions of retail politics, not racial animus.
Congressional redistricting is easy compared to state legislative redistricting. The more tilted political battles come in the drawing of those maps. Even with super majorities in both houses, today’s GOP faces the same obstacles that yesterday’s Democrat majorities in the Legislature faced — the slicing of political pies even among friends is a messy business.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at [email protected]