Redistricting plan submitted in lawsuit

Published Oct. 2, 2015 in  The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Although she has voted in recent city elections, Natchez resident Clara M. Rounds — who is black — feels as if her vote still suffers from a racial divide.

Rounds said she sees that divide every day — right in her Ward 5 neighborhood.

“I would love to see Natchez flourish,” said 77-year-old Rounds, who has called Natchez home for 50 years. “But for us to be equally represented, we need to be equally distributed.”

Since May, the city has faced a federal lawsuit that addresses the issue of equal racial distribution or the fair drawing of Natchez’s six aldermen ward district lines.

The lawsuit, filed by former Natchez Mayor Phillip West, former Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles, the Rev. Clifton Marvel and Jacqueline Marsaw of the NAACP, alleges that the current ward lines — based on the 2000 census — are drawn in a way that “fractures geographically concentrated African-American populations and dilutes African-American voting strength.”

The City of Natchez provided a proposed redistricting plan to the plaintiffs Wednesday.

In the proposed plan, the black voting population increases the most in Ward 5, currently represented by white alderman Mark Fortenbery.

Under the current ward lines, blacks represent 57.5 percent of the population in Ward 5. Under the new plan, blacks would have a 65-percent representation.

Voting age population in Ward 5, under the new plan, would increase from 52.5 percent to 60 percent.

Fortenbery, who has been involved with redistricting discussions along with the other five Natchez aldermen, said he didn’t see a dire need for redistricting in the first place.

“I don’t think they need to be redrawn,” Fortenbery said of the current ward lines. “It is what it is, though.”

Fortenbery ran unopposed in the last city election, and said he doesn’t know of a black candidate in Ward 5 who plans to challenge the Ward 5 seat in the May primary race or June general election.

And while the black vote strengthened under the proposed plan in Ward 5, it decreased in others.

Total black population in Ward 2 went from 97.6 percent to 89.8 percent. Voting age population shifted from 97.6 percent to 88.6 percent.

Ward 4 showed a decrease in total black population from 73.2 percent to 71.8 percent, and voting age population dropped from 69.7 percent to 68.3 percent.

Ward 6 showed a drop from 36.6 percent to 28.7 percent for total black population, and the voting age population decreased from 31.6 percent to 25.2 percent.

Ward 1 and 3 were left relatively unchanged.

Under the current ward lines and the proposed plan, blacks have the majority vote in wards 1, 2, 4 and 5.

The proposed ward lines are based on the 2010 census. The current ward lines are based on the 2000 census.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said no redistricting plan would be adopted without a public hearing being held first.

Carby said Thursday that no public hearing has been scheduled yet.

“We’re going to have a plan in place and enacted well before city elections, though,” Carby said.

Chad Mask of Jackson-based Carroll Warren & Parker provided outside legal counsel for the board Monday when they discussed redistricting in an executive session under the litigation exception of the open meetings law.

The the city previously attempted to to redistrict its wards in 2011 — when pre-clearance was required by the U.S. Department of Justice for redistricting.

That plan was denied, leaving ward lines unchanged.

The DOJ contended that the rejected plan reduced the voting age black population in Ward 5 to 46 percent, and that the city appeared to have drawn the lines that way because blacks were on the verge of winning a fourth seat on the six-member board of aldermen.

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields said he believes the proposed redistricting plan is one that accurately reflects Natchez’s racial makeup.

“I think we are disproportioned right now, but I think the plan fixes that,” he said.

West said the end goal of the lawsuit, for him, is simple.

“One man, one vote. That’s what I want,” he said. “This is an opportunity to make sure blacks have the representation they deserve.”

Like West, Ward 5 resident Kenyata Minor, 38, said that the black vote needs to be better represented.

Minor also said, however, that there is another step that is key for black voices to be heard in Natchez.

“We’ve got a lot of black people who don’t vote. That needs to change,” Minor said. “A lot of us feel like our vote doesn’t count or doesn’t matter.”

Minor said even though blacks have had the right to vote for many years, a lingering fear still persists — even in Natchez.

“It’s Natchez history,” he said. “People haven’t forgotten what happened.”

Rounds agreed.

“I think on the issue of color, we still have a long way to go,” Rounds said. “People focus too much on north Natchez being black and south Natchez being white, when in reality, we’re all neighbors.”