JACKSON — Mississippi House Republicans pushed through a redistricting plan yesterday that critics say would cut the number of white Democrats in the 122-member body.
House members voted 70-49 for the plan, with 63 Republicans and seven Democrats supporting it.
House Elections Chairman Bill Denny, a Jackson Republican, said the changes preserve black-majority districts and reflect population shifts since the last Census.
“All those matters were to take care of population shifts or to not enact any retrogression,” said Denny, using a term that means not allowing black voting opportunities to go backward.
Joint Resolution 1 now goes to the Senate. Senators have yet to release their own redistricting plan. If the plans pass, they would have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department because of Mississippi’s history of discrimination against black voters. The plans could also face court challenges, and yesterday’s five-hour debate at times seemed most about Democrats laying the groundwork for a lawsuit.
Republicans, holding a House majority for the first time since Reconstruction, drew a map matching five pairs of representatives. Of those pairings, four are likely to eliminate a sitting Democrat, and one is likely to eliminate a sitting Republican. Denny’s plan also cuts the share of black population in a number of white-majority districts. Districts with large minorities of black voters usually, but not always, elect Democrats.
“By simply drawing out four, five, six, seven Democrats, what they’ve done is not only enhance their chance to be a majority in the House, but to be three-fifths,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.
Brown’s district is collapsed and his northeast Jackson home is drawn into Denny’s district, matching the two incumbents if both run in the next election. Denny’s plan creates a new, open district in fast-growing and very Republican southern Madison County.
Denny repeatedly noted that he had drawn Brown into his own district when he was pressed on pairing so many Democrats. Such a race would likely favor Denny, though, as the black voting-age population of his district fell from 36 percent to 26 percent.
Denny denied that his map was driven by partisan considerations, saying he didn’t try to figure out how many Democrats he could “erase.”
“You’re telling me you never considered the fact that you’re pairing white Democrats?” Brown asked.
“No, you don’t look at it that way,” Denny said.
Denny said he invited more than 110 of the House’s 122 members to have input into how their district would be drawn. But he said that he invited fewer than 10 of the House’s 22 white Democrats to have such input.
Denny also said he looked at the share of votes won by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election and Democrat Johnny DuPree in the 2011 gubernatorial election in at least some districts to see how they would perform in future elections.
Electoral districts have to be redrawn every 10 years after the Census to account for population shifts. Denny’s plan would increase the number of districts with a majority black voting age population from 41 to 42. That’s 34 percent of House districts, almost identical with the state’s 35 percent black voting age population.
Fast-growing DeSoto County, which now entirely holds three districts and shares three others, would have six entire districts and share one. New districts likely to be captured by Republicans would also be created in Forrest and Oktibbeha counties.
The House turned down an alternative map offered by Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, on a 66-54 vote. Scott and supporters said her map proved that it was possible to draw more minority districts while maintaining others where black people are a sizeable minority.
“That showed it can be done,” said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg.
Denny’s plan has only one district where the population is between 35 percent and 50 percent black, the seat now held by Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston. Blackmon said reducing black communities in such districts is an illegal dilution of minority voting strength.
“If we are going to have influence in this body, we are going to have to be associated with other people,” said Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, who is black. “It goes directly at white Democrats in an attempt to decrease the influence of African-American members.”
Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, whose district would be pushed into the Republican suburbs of Rankin County, argued that the plan also was aimed at reducing rural influence. He said Republican leaders were ruling by fear.
“I’ve watched people vote against their own economic interest and their community’s interest because they were worried about a map or they were worried about a committee assignment,” he said.