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Analysis: Redistricting a big task for incoming lawmakers

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

People elected to the Mississippi House and Senate this year will be in charge of redrawing legislative districts in the coming term.

It’s an important and inherently political task. And things could get ugly in the push-and-pull between the two major parties.

Mississippi has 52 districts in the Senate and 122 in the House. Political boundaries are supposed to be redrawn at least once a decade, after new Census numbers reveal which parts of the state have gained residents and which have lost them.

Ideally, districts would be balanced by population, with roughly 57,390 residents in each Senate district and 24,460 in each House district. Those numbers are based on July 2017 population estimates, which will, of course, change once the national head count is done next year.

The Census Bureau website shows that the U.S. population grew 5.5% between the last Census in April 2010 and the most recent date for which county-level estimates are posted, July 2017.

Mississippi lagged behind the national rate, growing an estimated 0.5% during that period. In raw numbers, that is an increase from 2,967,297 to 2,984,100 in the state.

For years, the fastest-growing part of Mississippi has been DeSoto County, in the far northwestern corner of the state. Part of the growth is driven by people leaving Memphis, Tennessee, and establishing homes in the suburbs. DeSoto County’s population grew 10.8% during those seven-plus years, gaining about 17,500 residents. And it is still growing.

On the Gulf Coast, Harrison County grew 9.6%, an increase of about 17,920 people.

Two suburban counties outside Jackson also experienced healthy growth. Madison County grew 9.9%, gaining more than 9,400 residents. Rankin County grew 7.1%, gaining just over 10,000 people.

Lamar County, near Hattiesburg, grew 10.7%, gaining about 5,700 people.

A tougher story is being written in Hinds County, which is home to the capital city of Jackson, and in the Delta.

Although Hinds County still has the largest population of any county in the state, its numbers decreased by 2.4%, or nearly 5,900 people.

The population of the Delta’s Leflore County decreased by an estimated 9.8%, with about 3,160 residents departing.

Also in the Delta, Washington County saw a decrease of 9.6%, or about 4,900 people.

With redistricting ahead, these population changes are good for Republicans and bad for Democrats.

Republicans are in a strong position to maintain their majorities in the Mississippi House and Senate this year, based on the numbers of candidates running from each party.

The counties that saw strong population growth have strong Republican voting patterns, and those losing population have been solidly Democratic.

Drawing new legislative district boundaries is never as simple as dropping a grid onto a map. Lawmakers have to try to make districts relatively compact, though they don’t always succeed. Communities of interest are supposed to be kept together. And race is a consideration.

Although Mississippi is no longer required to get U.S. Justice Department approval for changes to political boundaries, legislators in charge of redistricting are expected not to retrogress — that is, they are expected not to decrease the percentage of districts where African American voters have a chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

Mississippi has about a 38% black population, with large numbers of African Americans living in Hinds County, in the Delta and in counties along the Mississippi River. A big challenge will be drawing new boundaries that maintain black representation while also moving some districts into the growth areas where white Republicans have moved. Bottom line: Redistricting could be a tough time for white Democrats.

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» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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