Gerrymandering in Mississippi is Hurting Women: Know the Players

Republicans in the state of Mississippi have the kind of power they don’t get in many other states. The GOP here has a supermajority in both the House and Senate, which gives them the political strength to pass critical budget legislation that requires a two-thirds majority vote to get to the governor’s desk. One example of this is a budget-busting corporate tax cut they passed in 2016, despite Gov. Phil Bryant (R) having to slice budgets twice because of lagging tax collections in the 2015-2016 budget year. State public schools also remain woefully underfunded, rural hospitals are closing and the cuts immediately preceded news of record-level road and bridge closures across the state. In fact, 11.8 percent of Mississippi’s bridges are structurally deficient, ranking 12th in the country, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

This was not the best time for a tax cut for multi-million dollar corporations, but Republicans were able to squeeze this little gift out to their lobbyist buddies thanks to several rounds of redistricting that made the Mississippi election map more favorable to them.

“Legislators pick their voters, rather than the voters picking the legislator. That’s just the way it works,” said Hazlehurst attorney Carroll Rhodes. “When it comes to creating districts, they want to draw people who they know will support them, and remove folks who won’t. It’s really anti-democratic, but that’s the current system.”

What galls is the sheer ease with which they can do it. Race is one of the most easily-recognized determiners for how a population votes in Mississippi. If you live in Mississippi and are White, there’s a very good chance you vote Republican; if you’re Black, you tend to vote Democrat. We’re so predictable, in fact, our voting trend can be used to break us to pieces, like an ice pick.

Here’s some background: Every 10 years, the US government takes a tally of the population in each state (through the US Census) and demands legislators shuffle their districts to distribute an equal number of voters in each region. This is why you’ll find some districts in urban areas are only a few streets across, while many districts in rural areas can cross hundreds of miles.

Legislators exploit that redistribution by cherry-picking their own voters and pushing the boundaries on how undemocratic they can make it. The vote of a large block of Black, Democratic voters in a majority-white District in Rankin County means exactly nothing. Similarly, a white voter in a primarily-Black Senate District in south Greenwood is about as powerless as the lone, insignificant vitamin in a Delta tamale. You may as well not be there at all.

This is exactly the way the legislator who runs your district wants things to be. If you tend to disagree with your legislator, there is a very good chance there are only a handful of people in your district who agree with you. All the people who think like you have already been shuffled off into a neighboring district run by a legislator who fits your personality. This actually works against democracy, because a more even distribution of voters of varying political leanings makes it easier to flip a seat and replace a bogus legislator who listens to campaign donors more than you.

These legislators have managed to break democracy in spite of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bars them from packing or diluting the power of minority voters. In fact, legislators have managed to use the Voting Rights Act against us. Federal law encourages legislative mappers to create districts with a high non-white Voting Age Population (VAP) exceeding 50 percent. In Mississippi, though, GOP mappers have exploited that federal mandate by dumping as many Black voters as possible into non-White districts in an effort to ditch pesky Democratic voters.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mississippi town of Greenwood, which got diced like an onion in order to protect segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens supporter Sen. Lydia Chassaniol. Consider the map below depicting Chassaniol’s District 14 (in blue) alongside that of Sen. David Jordan’s District 24 (in yellow).

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A close look reveals how those neighboring districts basically bisect the town. To understand why you’ll have to compare the above map against a population map provided by US Census numbers. Brace yourself.

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The green dots above depict people who report themselves as Black to Census workers. The dots in blue, represent white people. Stick the maps side-by-side, and it’s easy to see why the top half of the city went to Chassaniol and the bottom half to Jordan, particularly in a state where most people vote according to their race.

Mappers went overboard protecting incumbents, according to critics, but Chassaniol’s allies didn’t do it without help from the other side. New maps require a consensus of both Republicans and Democrats to be accepted, and many Democrats, like Jordan, got to insulate themselves against a difficult election by hoarding favorable voters in those new maps.

Jordan’s district is 77 percent Black, which counts easily as overkill. His district, and districts like his, would still be minority-majority districts, in accordance with the mandates of the Voting Rights Act with fewer voters. In fact, many minority-majority districts in Mississippi have voting-age populations that are well above 60 percent Black. Senate Districts 24 and 27 both have voting-age populations that are more than 72 percent Black, while District 28 is 84 percent Black.

If you’re thinking this excess of Democratic voters can be more fairly used elsewhere, you’re absolutely right.

Former Rep. Bobby Moak used to represent House District 53, which includes the town of Bogue Chitto. Moak, who is white, held his position from 1984 until 2016 but got ousted when new redistricting maps shuffled a sizable chunk of his democratic supporters into three surrounding districts, leaving him with a Republican base that hated him.

“Twenty-five percent or more of my minority voters were taken away and replaced with Republican voters, so my district switched pretty good,” Moak told The Lighthouse. “My voters went to (Rep.) America Chuck Middleton’s district (in Port Gibson), (Rep.) Robert Johnson’s area (in Natchez), and Becky Currie’s area (in Brookhaven).”

Moak’s voters got funneled off to help Johnson’s and Middleton’s districts break their 60 percent minority VAP range, while the ones GOP mappers funneled off to Currie’s district were pretty much banished to political irrelevance—since Currie’s District 92 has a Black voting-age population of only 18 percent. Every Black voter there is unquestioningly doomed to obsolescence.

With a new Census currently in the works, Mississippi legislators will soon get another chance to redraw maps and further shred democracy, but some legal watchers are wondering if the U.S. Supreme Court will step up and end the practice. The court is set to rule on the issue of partisan gerrymandering this month. The court tossed two lower court rulings a couple of weeks ago that jettisoned heavily gerrymandered congressional maps in Michigan and Ohio. Republicans in those states made a mockery of democracy by twisting enough territory to lock in GOP dominance, despite Democrats either getting nearly the same number of votes or more votes than Republicans in those elections.

Politicos say the vote on the court could go either way, while cynics expect the majority of Republican-appointed justices to do everything they can to protect the Republicans who appointed them.

“If the Supreme Court comes down and says they cannot draw districts in such a way to minimize the influence of the other party, Mississippi (mappers) will have to comply with the Voting Rights Act and make sure they’re not partisan, instead of drawing these super-Republican districts, like in the past,” said Rhodes. “Now, if the Supreme Court says they can do it, they’re gonna go hog wild.”

Regardless of how the court decides, Mississippi Democratic legislators will still have power, and that power will be in the hands of its Black legislators, according to Moak.

“If Democrats want to break the Republican supermajority, they’ll have to understand that it can’t be all about themselves,” Moak said. “It also has to be about what’s best for the state. You’ve got to learn patience and play as a team, and some folks are going to have to give up something.”

Black legislators’ past willingness to accept Democrat packing in their districts has to end. If legislators go along with a map that stuffs an overabundance of Black voters into their territory, they’ll get the inevitable benefit of easy reelection, but at the cost of white Democrats nearby. The last GOP map, for example, decimated rural white legislators by funneling their voters into Black Democrats’ districts.

This worked great for Black Democrats in the short term, but the long-game results reduced these “safe” Black Democrats to a powerless minority in both the House and Senate because their White comrades got voted out by the glut of new Republican voters squeezed into their districts. The way to fight this, Moak said, is by using your voice at redistricting time.

“When a legislator stands up and makes a comment (about packing his district), it builds a record for a federal case to overturn the redistricting process. It does more than send a message that this is not how this district should look. It sends a record that the courts have to look at,” Moak said. “When you’ve got a district that runs all the way from the Delta into Gluckstadt in order to help a Republican candidate and pack those remnants into another district, you’ve got a problem. When they stand up and complain, instead of just taking it, it will make a record. We’ve seen almost every map taken to court over the last 30 or 40 years so that record makes a difference.”

This behavior would run counter to conduct in the past, according to former Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Ricky Cole, who watched the redistricting process unfold more than 10 years ago.

“In the past, redistricting was kind of like every man for himself, but I think today you’ve got young leaders like Sen. Derrick Simmons (D-Greenville), who understands the importance of districts that can give Democrats a fighting chance. And I think Hob Bryan (D-Amory) on the Senate side is conscious of it. And I’ve actually talked to Rep. Earle Banks (D-Jackson) about it and Earle knows it, sees it and understands it. … What needs to happen this time is the incumbent Democrat needs to very intelligently look at all the districts and find a way to encourage tradeoffs in adjoining districts that will maximize competitive races for other Democrats, regardless of race. Nobody expects any member of the Legislative Black Caucus to go below 60, but there are places where it would make sense for an African-American legislator to trade off with a Republican legislator in an area that a Republican might want.”

Simmons and Banks were not available to answer questions during the reporting of this story, but we’ll be pressing them hard for responses as the redistricting process rolls over us again in the next few years. Vigilance is necessary, in a state where the ruling party pumps out anti-women bills like Pez dispensers do tasteless candy.

 

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