Mississippi lawyers argue whether legislative maps are fair to Black voters

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi legislators diluted the power of Black voters by drawing too few majority-Black state House and Senate districts after the most recent Census, an attorney representing the NAACP and several residents told three federal judges Monday.

But during opening arguments in a trial of the redistricting case, an attorney representing state officials told the judges that race was not a predominant factor in how legislators drew the state’s 52 Senate districts and 122 House districts in 2022.

Legislative and congressional districts are updated after each Census to reflect population changes from the previous decade. Mississippi’s new legislative districts were used when all of the state House and Senate seats were on the ballot in 2023.

(From left) Mississippi state senators Rod Hickman (D-Macon), Michael McLendon (R-Hernando), Albert Butler (D-Port Gibson) and David Jordan (D-Greenwood) review an alternate Senate redistricting map during debate on the floor of the Senate at the state Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP, File)

The lawsuit, which was filed in late 2022, says legislators could have drawn four additional majority-Black districts in the Senate and three additional ones in the House.

“This case is ultimately about Black Mississippians not having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process,” said Jennifer Nwachukwu of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Tommie Cardin, one of the attorneys for state officials, said Mississippi cannot ignore its history of racial division, but: “The days of voter suppression and intimidation are, thankfully, behind us.”

Cardin said voter behavior in Mississippi now is driven by party affiliation, not race.

Three judges are hearing the case without a jury. The trial is expected to last about two weeks, though it’s not clear when the judges might rule.

Mississippi’s population is about 59% white and 38% Black, according to the Census Bureau.

In the redistricting plan adopted in 2022, 15 of the 52 Senate districts and 42 of the 122 House districts are majority-Black. Those make up 29% of the Senate districts and 34% of the House districts.

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Historical voting patterns in Mississippi show districts with higher populations of white residents tend to lean toward Republicans and districts with higher populations of Black residents tend to lean toward Democrats.

The lawsuit does not challenge Mississippi’s four U.S. House districts. Although legislators adjusted those district lines to reflect population changes, three of those districts remained majority-white and one remained majority-Black.

Lawsuits in several states have challenged the composition of congressional or state legislative districts drawn after the 2020 Census.

Louisiana legislators, for example, redrew the state’s six U.S. House districts in January to create two majority-Black districts rather than one, after a federal judge ruled that the state’s previous plan diluted the voting power of Black residents who make up about one-third of the state’s population. Some non-Black residents filed a lawsuit to challenge the new plan.

And, a federal judge ruled in early February that the Louisiana legislators diluted Black voting strength with the state House and Senate districts they redrew in 2022.

In December, a federal judge accepted new Georgia congressional and legislative districts that protect Republican partisan advantages. The judge said the creation of new majority-Black districts solved the illegal minority vote dilution that led him to order maps to be redrawn.

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In Mississippi, a trial is underway regarding the redistricting of state House and Senate districts after the most recent Census. The NAACP and residents argue that Black voters’ power was diluted because too few majority-Black districts were created. State officials, however, argue that race was not a predominant factor in drawing the districts. The lawsuit claims that additional majority-Black districts could have been drawn. The trial, without a jury, is expected to last two weeks, with no clear timeline for a ruling. Mississippi’s population is 59% white and 38% Black, with 29% of Senate districts and 34% of House districts being majority-Black in the 2022 redistricting plan. Historical voting patterns show that districts with more white residents tend to lean Republican, while those with more Black residents lean Democrat. Similar redistricting challenges have occurred in other states, such as Louisiana and Georgia, where the voting power of Black residents has been a key issue.

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