State District Maps ‘Dilute the Voting Strength of Black Mississippians,’ Lawsuit Alleges

Jarvis Dortch leaning on a railing in the capitol
A coalition of voting rights organizations filed a lawsuit on Dec. 20, 2022, alleging that Mississippi’s state legislative district maps “illegally dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians.” American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Executive Director Jarvis Dortch, seen here in the Mississippi Capitol Building rotunda in Jackson, said in a Dec. 20, 2022, statement that lawmakers “ignore the public need” when they “draw their districts to guarantee their re-election.” Dortch previously served as a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A coalition of voting rights organizations is suing the State of Mississippi in federal court over its state legislative district maps, claiming they “illegally dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians” when electing representatives for the Mississippi House and Senate.

“This is the latest chapter in the ongoing struggle of Black people in Mississippi for fair representation and for the right to cast a meaningful ballot on Election Day,” Mississippi Center For Justice CEO Vangela M. Wade said in a Dec. 20 statement. “We are pleased to be working with our partners as we continue moving forward in this quest.”

The lawsuit, Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP v. State Board of Election Commissioners, alleges that the 2022 district maps “improperly use voters’ race to achieve partisan goals and protect incumbent politicians.” The complaint, filed in the Southern District of Mississippi on Dec. 20, charges that the maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution.

“Mississippi has the largest Black population percentage of any state in the nation. Black Mississippians comprise about 38% of the State’s residents (based on the Census Bureau’s ‘Any Part Black’ category) and Mississippi’s Black population continues to grow,” the lawsuit says.

“Yet, the new state legislative districting maps do not reflect that reality or the reality of Mississippi’s changing demographics and growing Black population. The 2022 maps do not adequately reflect the relative growth and significant size of Mississippi’s Black population. Rather, the 2022 maps water down the political power of Black Mississippians in violation of federal law.”

Despite being a 38% Black state, the Mississippi Senate has just 12 Black members, who represent 23% of the 52-member body. In the Mississippi House, 38 members are Black, representing 31% of the 122-member body. Just three senators and eight House members are Black women. None belong to the Republican Party, which has held most of the power in both chambers since 2012.

The groups involved in the lawsuit include the national American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Mississippi; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Mississippi Center for Justice; and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. Civil rights attorney Carroll Rhodes is representing the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP along with voters from across the state.

‘When Legislators Choose Their Voters’

The complaint says that Mississippi’s population could support at least four additional majority-Black Senate districts and at least three additional majority-Black House districts “across the State, where Black voters, despite their numbers, and despite voting cohesively, have previously been unable to elect candidates of their choice, in large part due to the prevalence of racially polarized voting.”

“Legislators should not draw their districts to guarantee their re-election. When they do so, they ignore the public need,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Executive Director Jarvis Dortch, a Black former Democratic state representative. “One day, Mississippians will have a Legislature that prioritizes their needs and follows the law. But that only happens if we continue to hold the current body accountable. That only happens when voters choose their legislators, not when legislators choose their voters.”

The most recent map for Mississippi Senate districts went into effect on March 29, 2022. Map courtesy State of Mississippi

Areas where the Legislature could have drawn majority-Black Senate districts “to prevent dilution,” the lawsuit says, include the DeSoto County area; the Golden Triangle area (between Columbus, Starkville and West Point); the South-Central Mississippi area near Copiah County; Simpson and Jefferson Davis Counties; and the Hattiesburg area.

For the House, the lawsuit says, lawmakers could have drawn additional majority-Black districts in the western Hinds County area; the “area north of the Golden Triangle between West Point and Tupelo”; and the area “between the cities of Laurel and Meridian, in and around Jasper and Clarke counties.”

The Legislature must draw new maps once a decade; lawmakers drew the latest maps following the release of 2020 Census data. Districting determines not only how political power is allocated geographically, but access to resources. With no challenge or effort to change them, the current maps will remain in place until a future slate of lawmakers completes 2030 redistricting in the next decade.

The lawsuit notes that “the State held no public meetings at all where the public was able to comment on and address the draft maps prior to their passage or hear the State’s explanation for why these maps served reasonable goals” and that legislative leaders “then rushed them into law in a matter of days” at the end of the 2022 legislative session.

‘A Continuation of the State’s Long History’

Mississippi has a long history of denying Black residents the right to vote or circumventing voting rights that dates back to the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and the adoption of the State’s 1890 Constitution.

Throughout the 20th century, white segregationist Dixiecrats fought to prevent Black voter participation with Jim Crow tactics like poll taxes, dual registration systems, unfair candidate qualification systems and regimes that perpetrated racist terror campaigns. In more recent history, conservative white Republicans have controlled Mississippi as it remained among the states with the most restrictive voting laws in the country.

This district map for the Mississippi House of Representatives came into effect on March 29, 2022. Map courtesy State of Mississippi

The lawsuit notes that “notwithstanding the State’s sizable Black population, no Black Mississippian has ever been elected to statewide office in the 132 years since the adoption of the State’s 1890 Constitution.” Despite being the State with the highest percentage of Black residents, all 10 of Mississippi’s statewide-elected officeholders are white Republicans, including the governor and both U.S. senators.

“No Black Mississippian has ever served as Speaker of the House or President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Black candidates are rarely elected to legislative office in Mississippi outside of Black-majority districts,” the lawsuit says.

“Mississippi’s newest maps are a continuation of the state’s long history of disenfranchising Black voters,” NAACP General Counsel Janette McCarthy Wallace said in the statement. “Black voices were not heard in the redistricting process and these districts, which break up Black communities and limit their electoral voice, are the result. If our elections are to be just, equitable and fair, it is imperative that all Mississippians have a fair opportunity to elect candidates that reflect their communities and are responsive to their needs.”

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