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Mississippi plan seeks to increase black voting strength

March 26, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Senate on Tuesday adopted a plan to increase the black voting age population in one of its districts, bidding to satisfy a federal court order in a gerrymandering lawsuit.

The plan goes to the House for further consideration. It would affect two of the 52 state Senate districts — one that’s the subject of a lawsuit and another beside it in the rural flatlands of the Delta.

Three black plaintiffs sued the state in July over the composition of Senate District 22, which stretches through parts of six counties, including poor and mostly black parts of the Delta into the affluent and mostly white Jackson suburbs of Madison County. It has a 51 percent black voting-age population and a white senator, Republican Buck Clarke of Hollandale.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said that because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, the district lacks a large enough black majority to give African-American residents a realistic chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

A federal judge ruled in February that the current Senate District 22 dilutes black voting strength. A federal appeals court upheld that ruling March 15 and told lawmakers to redraw the district and any others that might need to be adjusted to increase the black voting age population in District 22.

The plan that advanced Tuesday would swap some precincts between District 22 and neighboring District 13, which has a 69 percent black voting age population and a black Democratic senator, Willie Simmons of Cleveland.

Clarke and Simmons are not seeking re-election this year. Instead, Clarke is running for state treasurer and Simmons is running for northern district transportation commissioner.

“This was the proposal that least affects senators ... and voting precincts,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Gray Tollison, a Republican from Oxford.

The plan would move three Sunflower County precincts from District 13 to District 22, and five Bolivar County precincts from District 22 to District 13.

That would set black voting age populations of 58 percent in District 22 and 62 percent in District 13.

Simmons told Senate colleagues on Tuesday that black residents would have a chance to elect a candidate of their choice in the two new districts.

“I’m very supportive of the plan,” Simmons said.

One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Rob McDuff, said he and other attorneys in the case will evaluate the plan.

African-Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi’s population and hold 25 percent of the seats in the state Senate. That is 13 of the 52 seats, the highest number ever in a state where the white power structure for decades used poll taxes, literacy tests and violence to suppress black people’s voting rights. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated some of those barriers, and African-Americans challenged legislative districts that diluted the power of black voters.

Mississippi’s current legislative district lines were set in 2012 and have been used since the 2015 legislative elections.

All of Mississippi legislative seats are up for election this year, and the candidates’ qualifying deadline was March 1. The federal appeals court set an April 3 deadline for lawmakers to draw as many new Senate districts as would be needed to increase black voting strength in District 22. It also set an April 12 qualifying deadline for candidates who will run in the newly drawn districts.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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