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Mississippi House adopts plan to redraw 2 Senate districts

March 28, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge will decide whether Mississippi lawmakers have fulfilled his order to redraw a state Senate district to improve black voting strength.

The state House adopted a plan Wednesday that the Senate adopted Tuesday, redrawing two of the 52 state Senate districts.

A lawsuit by black plaintiffs challenges the composition of Senate District 22, which stretches from mostly black and poor parts of the rural Delta into mostly white and affluent suburbs in Madison County, outside Jackson. The district has a 51 percent black voting age population and a white Republican senator, 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.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled last month that the district dilutes black voting power. A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with his ruling March 15, telling lawmakers to redraw District 22 and acknowledging that the boundaries of least one other district would have to be adjusted.

Legislators’ plan 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.

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.

During the debate Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens tried to persuade the House to adopt a different plan that would increase the black majority in District 22 by moving the predominantly white Madison County precincts into District 23, which is already majority-white and has a white Republican senator, Briggs Hopson. That plan would move some majority-black precincts out of District 23 into District 22. It was one of the plans Reeves said would be acceptable to fulfill his court order.

“The teacher gave us the answer to the exam,” Clark said before the House rejected his proposal.

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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