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Don't count on quadrants in Mississippi redistricting

By Staff
July 17, 2001
In Mississippi congressional redistricting, one idea is as good as another until it comes down to the lick log and a final decision is required.
The catchword coming now from members of Congress and the Mississippi Legislature is commonality.'' It is the drawing of congressional districts to form a community of interest.''
There's nothing new to an Interstate 20 corridor'' proposal. It's been kicking around since the first majority-black district was carved out of the Delta after the 1980 census.
Interstate 20 splits the state in half, north and south. Then some north-to-south route the obvious one is Interstate 55 divides the state into quadrants.
Bending the lines
Proponents say those four congressional districts would be compact and regional and political interests would be preserved. Opponents say too many counties get split and the population figures don't balance. The hypothetical I-20/I-55 split, for example, leaves a hulking district in the northeast and a tiny one in the sparsely populated southwest.
Then there's the question of how lines would have to be bent to accommodate a majority black district in the Delta.
After the 1980 census and reconfiguring the lines of five districts, it was apparent that splitting the state east-to-west was no longer acceptable. The Justice Department also was about to insist a majority black district be drawn out of the Delta.
Even then, lawmakers tried to draw districts of regional interest, moving to protect the power of longtime incumbents.
In the 20 years since, the Justice Department's position has not changed and the 2nd Congressional District now runs almost the length of the Mississippi River along the state's western border.
One of the standards that must be met in redistricting is that minority voting strength can't be diluted. It's a given that the Delta district will retain at least a 58 percent black majority.
Legislative mappers have about a month with a special session expected in August to balance geography; one-man, one-vote; compactness; and incumbency.
Washington, D.C., attorney Judith Browne, speaking last week at the NAACP national convention in New Orleans, said it's unacceptable for district lines to divide minority communities, dilute their voting power and make it difficult for those communities to elect officials who will recognize their needs.
Browne also said while some people will argue against gerrymandering districts, it is important to understand that the district lines will seem haphazard, regardless of whether race is a consideration.
Lauderdale tied to Coast
Those comments could lend credibility to a congressional proposal now picking up steam. It links DeSoto County on the Tennessee line with Rankin County, 200 miles to the south; and ties Lauderdale County with the Gulf Coast, separated by more than 160 miles.
There's a world of difference between what's important to the people of Lauderdale County … and the Gulf Coast,'' Rep. Terry Burton, D-Newton.
Burton is one of those talking of an Interstate 20 corridor. But when he uses the phrase, he's talking of economic interests that link Meridian, Newton, Forest, Brandon and other communities along the highway in the eastern part of the state.
For Burton and other mappers, it comes down to what kind of snakelike twists and spaghetti turns will be acceptable to the Justice Department.
It also would bring a smile to Elbridge Gerry, who gave his name to the practice of contorting political districts to favor the party in power. During Gerry's term as governor of Massachusetts in 1800s, his party twisted political districts into weird shapes to try to hold onto power.
Observers said one of the districts looked like a salamander. Gerry's opponents coined the term gerrymandering.''
Jack Elliott Jr. writes for the Associated Press in Jackson.