Scott Colom: Redistricting questions still unanswered

May 18, 2011 12:39:00 PM

Scott Colom - colomsw@gmail.com

 

After months of endless debate, newspaper stories, partisan bickering and lawsuits, the United States District Courts were suppose to resolve the redistricting battle for the 2011 elections. Unfortunately, after the recent judges'' decision, important questions remain.  

 

The redistricting battle started over a disagreement between the speaker of the Mississippi House and the current Lt. Governor. Supposedly, in the past, there was a "gentleman''s agreement" between the House and the Senate that allowed each separate chamber to draw their own election lines during redistricting. This year, the Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant decided he would not accept the House''s redistricting plan without the Senate''s approval. And when the House Democratic majority passed a bill with their new lines, Lt. Governor Bryant claimed the lines gerrymandered away any chance for the Republicans to win enough seats to select a Speaker of the House of their choosing for the next 10 years.  

 

Upset at the Lt. Governor''s rejection of the lines passed in the House, which he felt broke the previous "gentleman''s agreement," the Speaker of the House, Billy McCoy, refused to compromise. His position was that the House lines had been drawn and Lt. Governor Bryant should have nothing to do with it. This left redistricting at a major em-pass.  

 

In Mississippi, because of the Voting Rights Act, changes in election laws, including redistricting, must be approved by the United States Department of Justice. The Department of Justice must approve new election lines prior to the qualifying deadline for an election. In the past, disputes over the amount of majority-minority districts resulted in the federal courts drawing the lines and legislative elections being held in back to back years. Now, the inability of the House and Senate to agree on new house lines created the possibility that new lines would not be drawn and approved by the DOJ before the qualifying deadline and, again, legislative elections would have to be held in consecutive years.  

 

The situation became more tenuous when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit claiming that the legislators could not run in the current election lines without violating the one man, one vote principle. This principle requires each legislative district have as close to the same amount of voters in it as possible to ensure voters have equal influence. The NAACP argued that the population had shifted and changed significantly in Mississippi over the past 10 years; thus running in the current election based on past legislative districting violates would violate the one man, one vote principle.  

 

Most observers thought this lawsuit would resolve the conflict. The Speaker and the NAACP argued the courts should allow the House members to run in the lines passed in the House. The Lt. Governor and other Republicans argued the court should draw new lines. Then, suddenly, Delbert Hosemann, the Republican Secretary of State, pointed out that the state constitution required the lines be drawn by 2012, which meant that the election could be held in 2011 based on the past lines and then the new legislature could pass news in the 2012 session. Two days ago, the federal panel issued an order accepting the Secretary of State''s opinion. The elections are to be held based on the current lines and must be drawn by the 2012 legislature. 

 

This opinion still leaves questions unanswered, though. The opinion does not explicitly address whether there will have to be a second election after the 2012 legislature or the courts draw new lines. Both options have downsides. On one hand, if the legislators are required to run again in 2012, the state will have to pay for consecutive elections, wasting thousands of tax dollars. On the other hand, if the legislatures are allowed to serve until 2015, before scheduled new elections, voters would have four years of representation that clearly violates the one man, one vote principle.  

 

Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is colomsw@gmail.com.

Scott Colom is a local attorney.