JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – A majority of Mississippi senators voted Wednesday to approve the chamber's redistricting plan, despite complaints from a few colleagues who think they're treated unfairly because their districts are dramatically changed.
The vote was 46-5, with Democratic Sen. Alice Harden of Jackson not voting.
Redistricting is one of the final big issues for lawmakers to consider during their four-month session, which ends this week. Maps for the 122-member House and 52-member Senate have to be updated each decade to balance the population in the districts.
The House approved its own map last week, and the Senate rubber-stamped the House plan on Wednesday. The House was expected to consider the Senate plan late Wednesday or sometime Thursday.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant doesn't have a role in approving or rejecting the redistricting plans. However, because of Mississippi's history of racial discrimination, the plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that the maps don't dilute minority voting strength.
It's also possible that the NAACP or others who want more majority-black districts will file a lawsuit and ask federal judges to reject the proposed maps and draw new ones.
The Senate redistricting chairman, Republican Merle Flowers of Southaven, said he believes that chamber's map meets all the required standards with districts that are compact and that include geographic areas with common interests. He said the populations of the districts are balanced and the map upholds minority voting power.
"It's a very good, fair plan," Flowers said Wednesday.
Mississippi's population is 37 percent black, and its voting-age population is 35 percent black.
The new Senate map has 15 majority-black districts, or 29 percent. When federal judges drew the Senate map a decade ago, it had 12 majority-black seats, or 23 percent.
The Senate plan reduces the number of split precincts from 129 statewide to 14. Flowers said that's important because election officials and voters are often confused when some people in a precinct vote in one legislative district and others vote in a different district.
The plan creates a new district in fast-growing and largely Republican DeSoto County, and the new district is expected to add to the GOP's current majority of 31 Senate seats.
To stay at 52 seats, the plan puts two white Democrats from north Mississippi into one district – second-term Sen. Bill Stone of Ashland and fifth-term Sen. Nickey Browning of Pontotoc. The new district includes more of Browning's territory than Stone's.
Stone said he's not happy with the change, particularly because Benton and Marshall counties, which he now represents, are put into separate districts.
"Benton and Marshall are tied at the hip in so many ways," Stone said, noting that the two counties have an economic development alliance.
The map also makes big changes in the territory of District 34, now represented by second-term Sen. Haskins Montgomery of Bay Springs, a white Democrat. The current district has a 38.5 percent black voting age population and includes all of Jasper and Smith counties and part of Jones and Scott counties. The proposed new district would have a 55 percent black voting age population and would shift southward to include all of Montgomery's home base of Jasper County and parts of Jones and Forrest counties.
"It's just a bad situation for my home county," Montgomery told the Senate.
Legislators debated redistricting several weeks last year but never agreed on a plan because of differences between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. The GOP won control of both chambers in the November election.
Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, who headed the Senate redistricting effort last year, praised the plan drawn by Flowers. Burton said it's challenging to create a new district for a growing area because it's inevitable that some incumbents will be unhappy.
"Somebody has to run against somebody," Burton said. "It's a tough choice to make."
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