JACKSON Mississippi lawmakers are working to redraw the lines of a state senate district that two federal courts ruled dilutes black voting power. Senate District 22, which stretches 100 miles across six counties, is majority African American but has a white Republican senator, Buck Clarke of Hollandale.
On Tuesday, the state Senate approved a new map, which would only affect District 22 and the neighboring Senate District 13. If the House also passes the Senate's redistricting plan, it would go into effect before this year's statewide elections.
"I'm very supportive of the plan," Sen. Willie Simmons, a black Democrat who represents District 13, told his colleagues on Tuesday.
The new map would raise the black voting-age population in Clarke's District to 58 percent, up from 51 percent.
But during federal court arguments at the Southern District of Mississippi in February, Maxwell Palmer, a political scientist at Boston University, testified that District 22 would need a 62-percent black voting-age population in order for African Americans to have a "realistic opportunity" to elect their candidate of choice.
Neither Simmons nor Clarke is running for re-election this year; Clarke is running for state treasurer, while Simmons is running for Central District transportation commissioner.
Most of District 22 is in the Delta, which is majority black and one of the poorest regions in the country. Before the 2010 Census, it also included majority-black areas of Madison County. But legislative redistricting in 2012 extended it into wealthy, majority-white parts of Madison County, too.
That created a district comprised of white voters who are significantly wealthier than the average white Mississippian, and black voters who are significantly poorer than the average black Mississippian. Statewide, about 13 percent of white Mississippians live below the federal poverty line, but among white residents of Senate District 22, fewer than 9 percent do. While 32 percent of African Americans live in poverty statewide, that number climbs to 41 percent in Clarke's district.
Education rates are also lower among African Americans in the Delta, where schools are vastly underfunded and teachers are in short supply. In general, voter-turnout rates are the lowest among the poor and those with less education. In District 22, this results in a large gap in turnout, with white turnout 10.2 points higher than black turnout.
Three African Americans in District 22 first filed the lawsuit in federal court last year, alleging that the map violated the Voting Rights Act. One of the plaintiffs is Joseph Thomas, a former state senator from District 21 whose residence moved to District 22 after the 2012 map change. In 2015, he challenged Clarke, but lost 54-46.
At the Hinds County federal court in February, Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that District 22 violates the Voting Rights Act and ordered the Legislature to redraw it. The state appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New Orleans and is known for its conservative lean, and the court upheld Reeves' ruling.
The Fifth Circuit hears cases originating in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. It is comprised of 17 judges, but a panel of just three hears each case.
The panel in the District 22 case included two judges that Democratic presidents appointed and Judge Edith Brown Clement, whom Republican President George W. Bush appointed.
Though the Democratic-appointed justices voted to uphold Reeves' ruling, Clement did not.
In a dissent, Clement wrote that Thomas is "a black Democrat" who is "trying hard to get his seat back." She also accused Reeves of writing a ruling that is "narrowly tailored to win Thomas the election."
She made the partisan nature of her dissent clear, writing that Mississippi would have won on appeal at the Fifth Circuit if it had not "had the poor luck of drawing a majority-minority panel." Presumably, she was referring to the fact that Democratic-appointees are a minority on the Fifth Circuit.
"I have never seen a judge, federal or state, write an opinion as overtly partisan as hers," Rep. David Baria, the Democratic House Minority Leader, told the Jackson Free Press on Tuesday evening.
The Mississippi House must still join the Senate in approving the new map or find another one both can agree on. They must do so by a court-set deadline of April 3. Then, the court must approve it.
Though the Legislature is wrapping up its session for the year, the District 22 case could force it to go into a special session unless it quickly approves a map that is satisfactory to both chambers and to the court.
While the qualifying deadlines for most seats in this years' legislative elections passed on March 1, the federal appeals court moved that deadline to April 12 for Senate District 22.
In his ruling, Reeves wrote that, across the state as a whole, "Mississippi's Senate is much whiter than Mississippi."
"The 2010 Census data showed that Mississippi was 59.1% white and 40.9% non-white," he wrote. "After redistricting with these data, therefore, one might have expected fresh maps to result in an upper legislative chamber with something like 31 white Senators and 21 non-white Senators. But there are only 15 majority-minority Senate Districts and the Senate has never had more than 13 African-American members. In plain English, Mississippi's Senate is much whiter than Mississippi."
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained a photo incorrectly identified as being of the members of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. We apologize for the error.