Black ExperienceNational

Mississippi Must Redraw District Voting Lines, Appeals Court Rules

A federal appeals court on Friday ordered Mississippi officials to redraw district lines for a district in the Mississippi Delta, leaving undisturbed the finding by federal District Judge Carlton Reeves that the boundaries diluted the African-American vote in violation of a section of the Voting Rights Act.

In denying a request from state officials to conduct this fall’s election under the existing district lines, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals instead ruled that the legislature should draw new lines for State Senate District 22 to comply with the Act or allow the election to be held under an alternative plan adopted by Reeves.

“The districting plan in Mississippi’s state Senate effectively denied African American voters the right to choose their elected officials,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “For the fourth time in this case, we have won before the district court and the 5th Circuit. We hope Mississippi will finally do the right thing and fix the Voting Rights Act violation. The people of Mississippi deserve an equal opportunity to participate in a fair democratic process. This important victory will ensure a fair state senate map and provide long overdue relief to African Americans in the state.”

The case was brought on behalf of three African-American voters in Senate District 22, one of whom is Joseph Thomas, a former state senator from Yazoo City who lost in a run for the seat in 2015 after he was moved into the district during 2012 redistricting. The plaintiffs were represented by the Mississippi Center for Justice, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Waters Kraus firm of Dallas, and attorney Ellis Turnage of Cleveland, Miss. The other two plaintiffs are Melvin Lawson of Bolivar County and Vernon Ayers of Washington County.

Senate District 22 stretches from Bolivar County in the north to Madison County in the south. It is comprised of parts of Bolivar, Washington, Humphreys, Yazoo, and Madison Counties and all of Sharkey County. The lawsuit contended that the legislature’s decision in 2012 to add wealthy predominantly white portions of Madison County to the poorer Delta counties helped perpetuate the long-standing dilution of African-American voting strength in the district. Although the district as drawn in 2012 contained a bare 50.8% African-American voting age population, the evidence demonstrated that white bloc voting prevented African-American candidates of choice from being elected in the district.

Attorney Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which co-counseled the case on behalf of African-American voters in the district, said the old plan diluted African-American voting strength by adding wealthy majority-white suburbs in Madison County to an otherwise largely African-American rural district in the Delta.

“This is an important step in the ongoing struggle to achieve racial fairness in political life in Mississippi, and it was appropriate for the federal court to intervene and enforce the Voting Rights Act,” McDuff said.

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