Mississippi's supreme court districts currently help white voters overpower the state's large Black population in District 1.
Mississippi is not known for its fair and open elections with its heavily gerrymandered legislative districts and some of the most restrictive voting requirements in the nation. Critics claim lawmakers work hard to pick and choose their favorite voters to re-elect themselves, and the results are evident. Frustrated Mississippi voters act as if they know the system is rigged and barely bother to vote. Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election in Mississippi was roughly 60%, the sixth worst in the nation.
The situation is no better in the state’s elected court system, according to a suit filed last year by Mississippi residents Dyamone White, Derrick Simmons and others. The case, trickling through Mississippi’s northern district court, claims current court district boundaries dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.
Mississippi’s population is almost 40 percent Black, which is a greater proportion than that of any other U.S. state. But in the 100 years that Mississippi voters have been electing supreme court judges, there have only been a total of four Black justices. Additionally, there has never been more than one Black justice on the nine-member Supreme Court at any given time. The last time a Black justice was elected to the Mississippi Supreme Court in a contested election was nearly two decades ago.
Ari Savitzky, Senior Staff Attorney, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project says a state like Mississippi deserves a court system that fairly reflects its electorate.
“We’re looking for one of the three supreme court districts to have a Black majority district,” Savitzky told Black Girl Times. “One of them is close to a Black majority now, but it splits the Delta. The best way to do that is to keep the Delta whole.”
Mississippi’s three-district supreme court map was set forth in the state’s hotly racist 1890 constitution, which sought to exclude Black people from U.S. democracy. It has not been remapped since the 1980s. Each district contains three judges, all approved through an at-large election that allows voters across a large swathe of territory to pick candidates. However, unlike smaller political races, the system pits white voters in majority-white territories against Black voters in minority-majority municipalities. Mapmakers can easily arrange the district in undemocratic ways, and have historically done just that.
At-large schemes are a proven tool for diluting the Black vote despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act. White Mississippi legislators voted in 1966 to amend state law to allow an "at large" county electorate to choose county supervisors. This helped white county populations overwhelm electorates in majority-Black towns and kept white people in power, despite comprising 10% or less of the town population. Issaquena County’s first Black supervisor, Willie Bunton, said the scheme locked Black people out of politics in their own towns and counties for ages.
“(The first time I ran for Issaquena County supervisor) I lost by 95 votes,” Bunton told Black Girl Times. “So, I went and got the chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and we went to court over that law.”
Bunton and other Black plaintiffs, including Mayersville resident and MFDP Chairman Clarence Hall, sued the Board of Election Commissioners and the county board of supervisors to end the practice. Bunton’s case, Hall v. Issaquena County Board of Supervisors, and others, proved a success, with courts nullifying the positions of supervisors elected through at-large schemes in “malapportioned districts.” Courts also ordered politicians who won an illegally stacked seat “not serve for the regular four-year term of office but only provisionally, and for the period of time needed to arrange for the new election and until their successors shall have been legally chosen and qualified.”
Despite the at-large system’s history of racism and the court’s refutation of the strategy, the state of Mississippi still uses it in supreme court elections, and there it continues to dilute Black voters. Most of the state’s Black population occupies the Delta region, as well as urban centers in the cities of Jackson and Meridian. White politicians made sure to give white populations in suburbs outside Jackson and Meridian, a comfortable majority, however.
Plaintiffs in Dyamone White vs. State Board Of Election Commissioners are not looking to remove the at-large voting system infamous for excluding whole populations, however. They merely want to tweak one district enough to put it in the minority column.
“One of the three districts, District 1, is almost Black majority already,” said Savitzky. “You can draw it any number of ways. Modest changes could be enough. You can make it look more like the congressional map, or one that looks similar to the district as it is right now.”
In its current configuration, the Black voting age population of District 1 is already approximately 49%. Plaintiffs argue that mapmakers could easily bring that figure to more than 50% using any number of configurations and without splitting counties or altering the overall orientation of the districts. With very little effort, plaintiffs argue the state could finally be brought more into compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
Defendants, including Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Gov. Tate Reeves, submitted court arguments rejecting the implications of only four Black justices serving over 133 years in a state that is almost half Black.
“Defendants deny that ‘Mississippi employs Supreme Court district boundaries that dilute the voting strength of Black Mississippians in Supreme Court elections,’ as alleged in Paragraph 2 of Plaintiffs’ Complaint,” the state claims. “… Mississippi’s voting demographics and electoral history, as determined from accurate sources and where applicable, will speak for themselves.”