A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday about whether African-American voters in part of Mississippi have a chance to elect a candidate of their choice in a state Senate district with a slim black majority.
Three black plaintiffs sued the state in July, asking U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to order that Senate District 22 be redrawn to increase its black majority.
One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Rob McDuff, said the district has a history of racially polarized voting that creates hurdles for any black candidate to win in the district.
"They are always losing, no matter how good the quality of the candidate," McDuff said Wednesday.
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Mike Wallace is an attorney representing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who are two of the three state election commissioners named as defendants. Wallace said that although Mississippi had barriers in the past to black voter registration and participation, plaintiffs failed to show that African-Americans face hurdles now in District 22.
"There isn't anything impeding them from exercising the right to vote," Wallace said.
African-Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi's population and hold 25 percent of the seats in the state Senate. That is 13 of the 52 seats, the highest number ever in a state where the white power structure for decades used poll taxes, literacy tests and violence to suppress black people's voting rights. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated some of those barriers, and African-Americans challenged legislative districts that diluted the power of black voters.
District 22 is more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) long, stretching through parts of six counties from the Delta down into the Jackson suburbs of Madison County. It has a 51 percent black voting-age population and a white senator, Republican Buck Clarke of Hollandale.
Clarke was elected in 2003, 2007 and 2011 in an earlier configuration of the district and in 2015 in the district as it currently exists. He is in his second term as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Clarke is running for state treasurer this year, which means there is an open race for the Senate seat.
One of the people who filed the lawsuit is former state Sen. Joseph Thomas, a Democrat from Yazoo City. Thomas served in a different Senate district from 2000 to 2004. When the 52 state Senate districts were redrawn in 2012 to account for population changes shown in the 2010 Census, Thomas' home was drawn into the Senate district represented by Clarke. Thomas lost to Clarke in the 2015 election.
Plaintiffs want the district redrawn before this year's election. Reconfiguring District 22 could affect one other district nearby.
March 1 is candidates' qualifying deadline for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices in Mississippi. The lawsuit asks the federal judge to delay that deadline for District 22 and neighboring District 23, which is in parts of three counties and has been represented by another white Republican, Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg, who was first elected in 2007 and is running again.
William Cooper of Bristol Virginia, a redistricting expert for the plaintiffs, testified Wednesday that it's possible to increase the black voting age population in District 22 by swapping a few precincts between it and District 23.
Under one proposed plan drawn by Cooper, the Madison County precincts and some Yazoo County precincts would move from 22 to 23, and some Warren County precincts and all of sparsely populated Issaquena County would move from 23 to 22. Madison County precincts that are in other state Senate districts would not be affected.