Joint Resolution 1, the redistricting plan for the Mississippi House of Representatives, has been introduced, debated, and passed.
This exercise in the redistricting process, which is one of the most political functions undertaken in all of the activities required of a legislative body, is a tough, bitter exercise in partisan politics.
Basically, the redistricting motivation is this: The winning party in a legislative race seeks to capitalize upon and solidify its gains by establishing legislative districts that leave the winning party more firmly entrenched than they were prior to the successful fight to obtain majority status. In order to accomplish this, the party must walk a tightrope through a number of statutory requirements such as those that mandate consideration be given incumbents, that minority voting strength be protected and that “communities of interest” are acknowledged. Within these considerations, it is the party in the majority that has the power to call the shots on how the new districts will be comprised. Hence, elections do indeed have consequences.
For the time being, Joint Resolution 1 is in the books. With the advent of computers and evermore sophisticated data mapping programs, it is a fairly simple matter to draw districts that are Republican in nature as well as those that will likely vote Democratic. The final factor governing how the districts are compiled is change in population. In the case of Mississippi, the Delta continues to noticeably lose population while legislative seats are being drawn to DeSoto County by its population growth.
In the final analysis, the House GOP leadership has adopted a plan that left the 122-member House with 79 districts that contain less than 35 percent minority population as compared to only 70 districts in this category prior to redistricting. They acknowledged the growth in African-American population with a one-seat increase in black majority districts to 42. Only one seat now will fall in the “in between” category at 40 percent black voting age population compared to 11 seats that held such status under the outgoing plan. In short, the GOP plan has acknowledged the growth in black population by adding a seat while at the same time reconfiguring the remaining seats to reduce the number of minority-influenced seats. The result spells trouble for those seats currently held by white Democrats, several of whom must now run against each other and a few who are paired in the same districts with strong Republican incumbents.
The upshot of the redistricting process is that the Republicans are almost certain to increase their current 64-58 margin in the next election at the expense of seats in reconfigured districts long held by Democrats. The Democrats fought gamely when the plan was introduced. However, Republicans were quite cognizant of their electoral breakthrough in November 2011, and they carried the day on a largely partisan 70-49 vote.
As mentioned above, redistricting is a tough, bitter exercise in partisan politics. Is the process appropriate and fair? It is certainly an example of “hardball,” bare-knuckle politics at its best. Like it or not, the process seems to work the same both ways.
The redistricting gambit played out in Oktibbeha County following the 2000 Census is an excellent case in point. That growing county, home to the largest university in Mississippi, was split five different ways by Democratic House redistrictors in order to create a single district pitting two GOP first-termers Gary Chisholm of New Hope and Rob Robinson of Starkville against each other. Robinson lost that contest, leaving only veteran Tyrone Ellis with any prominent need to give voice to Oktibbeha County’s interests. The majorities of the four other districts lay outside of the county. Ironically, in the plan passed last week Oktibbeha County’s status was restored, with Rep. Ellis gaining virtual “safe seat” status within the eastern half of the county and a new open district being created for the western half of the county. So elections do indeed have consequences.
Can the Democrats dust themselves off and become competitive once again? Buoyed by their new superiority in numbers, have the Republicans created a plan that will sufficiently pass the tests of acknowledging incumbency, of assuring the protection of black voting strength and of due consideration to the importance of communities of interest?
The journey to answering those questions is not over, and several more questions and issues remain. Will there be an appeal to the courts? Will there be action by the U.S. Justice Department? Will the current Legislature be allowed to continue to serve in admittedly malapportioned districts until the next election cycle in 2015, or will elections be required for this fall?