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.
McCoy didn’t seek re-election to the House in 2011. In the November general election, Bryant won the governor’s race and Republicans took control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction.
Now, with Republicans in charge of both chambers, they’re also in charge of redistricting efforts in both places. Flowers said he does not expect Senate leaders this year to insist on having a say in the House districts.
The ideal population of a new House district is 24,322, according to the website of the Joint Committee on Reapportionment and Redistricting.
The site shows that most underpopulated current House district is District 115, which is entirely in Harrison County in a part of Biloxi that lost a significant number of people after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The seat is held by Democratic Rep. Randall Patterson. It is a majority-white district that has 10,817 fewer residents than it needs.
The most overpopulated current House district is District 6, which is entirely in DeSoto County. The seat is held by Republican Rep. Eugene Forrest Hamilton. It is a majority-white district that has 21,860 more residents than it needs.
The ideal population for a new Senate district is 57,063.
The redistricting committee’s website shows the most underpopulated current Senate district is District 12, in parts of Bolivar and Washington counties, which has 13,491 fewer residents than it needs. The district, which is majority-black, is represented by Democratic Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville.
The most overpopulated current Senate district is the current District 19, which is entirely within DeSoto County and is represented by Flowers. It is majority-white and has 25,931 more residents than it needs.
According to criteria adopted this past week, the number of residents of each new House and Senate district must be no more than 5 percent higher or 5 percent lower than the ideal population.
While legislators aren’t facing the immediate pressure of impending elections as they were in 2011, there are new sets of pressures for the redistricting chairmen.
“There were a number of senators that were retiring or running for another office, which created some vacancies that you could move districts around a little bit,” Flowers said of 2011.
“The challenge we have this year is you have 52 members of the Senate that have told us they’re running for re-election if they get an opportunity,” he said. “Because of population shifts, one senator will not be back. We’re going to have to collapse a district. By law, we’re going to have to.”