Advocating for Fair Elections in a Small Mississippi Town

Danielle Lang
Aug 29, 2016
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CLC Represents Black Voters in Challenge to City Council’s Unlawful Redistricting Plan

This morning, Campaign Legal Center attorneys are before an appeals court in New Orleans, representing black voters in Hattiesburg, Miss. These voters are challenging a 2012 city council redistricting plan that secures a white majority on the city council, even though Hattiesburg has a majority black population. 

The city has undergone significant demographic changes in recent years and as a result, blacks now comprise a majority of the population and a plurality of the voting age population.  Recognizing that Hattiesburg has extremely racially polarized voting patterns, in 2012, the majority-white Hattiesburg City Council, over the objection of its black members, passed a redistricting plan that packs black voters into two super-majority wards and creates three safe majority-white wards. 

In a city so racially polarized, the city council’s decision to pack a majority of the population into a minority of the wards has real life consequences: the black community is unable to vindicate its interests. 

For example, when the superintendent of the Hattiesburg School District requested a critical increase in their budget, the three white members of the City Council voted to deny the request over the objection of the two black members. Over 90 percent of the Hattiesburg Public School District is black. Ultimately, the school board had to sue over the budget request in order to receive the necessary funds. Soon after, the city council, once again along racial lines, refused to ratify the mayor’s reappointment of those school board members.

The question at the heart of the case is this: Under this redistricting plan, do blacks in Hattiesburg have an equal opportunity to effectively participate and elect candidates of their choice? We don’t believe so, and argue the plan is a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

This section of the VRA guarantees voters, regardless of race, an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.  The Supreme Court has recognized that this guarantee not only guards against restrictions that block access to the ballot box but also electoral systems that unfairly restrict minority voters’ ability to effectively participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.

For example, prior to widespread litigation to enforce Section 2, many jurisdictions, particularly in the South, elected all of their officials through at-large elections rather than individual districts to wash out minority voices.  The combination of systems designed to lock out minority effectiveness, such as at-large elections, and extremely racially polarized voting that ensures minority voters are not be able to elect any candidates that represented their interests, are unlawful as discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.

The case is Fairley v. Hattiesburg. CLC represents the plaintiffs along with New York Law School Racial Justice Project and Professor Deborah Archer, who will argue the case today before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

 

 

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