JACKSON — Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s running for governor, says he’s “offended” the U.S. Justice Department is still required to approve redistricting in Mississippi.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires Mississippi and several other states — mostly in the South — to submit election changes for Justice Department clearance to ensure minorities’ voting strength is upheld.
“We’ve got a Justice Department, we’ve got people in Washington, D.C., saying, ‘We’re going to look over your shoulder and tell you where every line is supposed to be, where every dot is supposed to be,'” Bryant told dozens of Republican women at the Capitol. “So the Obama Justice Department’s going to tell us how we ought to be doing things in Mississippi?”
Congress originally passed the Voting Rights Act in reaction to the violence, literacy tests and other methods of suppressing minorities’ power to exercise the constitutional right to vote.
“That happened in 1965, and I’m offended by the fact that the federal government does not trust members of this Legislature to draw these lines,” Bryant said.
The Voting Rights Act has been upheld as constitutional and has been renewed several times, most recently with bipartisan support in 2006, when Republican George W. Bush was president.
Bryant said people shouldn’t expect the law to be repealed anytime soon.
“But at some point we’re going to have to start standing up and saying, ‘It is time, that the people of the state of Mississippi are trusted … ” Bryant said.
Mississippi legislators are redrawing lines for the 122 state House districts at 52 Senate districts to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census.
They’re trying to approve a plan before April 1 because the Justice Department generally needs at least 60 days to approve a plan. Legislative candidates’ qualifying deadline is June 1.
One of the senators most deeply involved in redistricting, Democrat Hob Bryan of Amory, criticized Bryant’s remarks.
“All of us must comply with federal law whether we agree with it or not,” Bryan said in an interview later. He did not attend Bryant’s speech. “I’m very disappointed that the lieutenant governor says he doesn’t think we should comply with federal law.”
Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, said later that federal oversight is needed in Mississippi redistricting. She pointed out that black senators hold five of the 34 committee chairmanships in the state Senate. Bryant appointed the chairmen.
“It may not be 1965, but there are those who still act as if we are living back in the ’60s,” Harden said. “I would like to think that at some point in our history, that we will get beyond having to submit everything that we do as far as voting to the Justice Department. But the reality of the situation is, we’re not there — not at this point, we’re not.”
Lynn Cheramie, a member of the Hancock County Federation of Republican Women, applauded Wednesday as Bryant criticized the Voting Rights Act. After the speech, Cheramie said she worries that Democrats will gerrymander legislative districts to protect their turf. She also said she was puzzled that Bush signed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
“Certainly, 1964 is way behind us and we’re all long past that,” said Cheramie, 71.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Mississippi is one of eight states that have to submit all election changes to the Justice Department for approval, according to the Leadership Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The others are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas.