The 2021 elections for Hernando’s Board of Aldermen will occur under a newly approved districting plan, which decreased the disparities in the populations of its wards from 98.43% to 6.3%. The plan took more than four years to develop, cost $68,535.53 and will be out of compliance with federal law in just a few months after the 2020 Census data is released.
Hernando had not redrawn its six wards since 2008, though state law requires redistricting be done within six months of new census data becoming available. Federal law also requires the populations of local legislative districts to be “substantially equal,” with the legally accepted standard being that the largest and smallest districts be no more than 10% apart in their population.
The purpose of the recent redistricting effort was to prevent legal challenges to overturn 2021 Hernando elections because of the inequities in ward populations.
The disparity in the populations of Hernando’s wards meant that, for years, votes from those living in smaller population wards carried much more weight than their neighbors in higher population wards in Board of Aldermen elections. This means that some aldermen represented a much larger group of voters than others. For example, under the 2008 map, Ward 3 has a population of 3,293 while Ward 2 has just 982, but both wards have the same representation on the Board of Aldermen.
The newly adopted districting plan was approved on Nov. 17 in a 4-3 vote, with the tie between the aldermen being broken by Mayor Tom Ferguson. Aldermen Gary Higdon, Michael McLendon and Doc Harris voted to approve the plan. Aldermen Andrew Miller, Jeff Hobbs and Alderwoman Cathy Brooks voted against it.
Though the new map will be in effect for the 2021 regular elections, the old map will be used for the Jan. 19 special election to fill the Ward 1 alderman seat. The seat was previously held by Elhanan “Sonny” Bryant, who died on Saturday, Nov. 28.
During a special meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to hold the special election under the ward boundaries used in the 2017 election so the constituents who elected Bryant will also choose who will serve out the remainder of his unexpired term.
Andrew Miller, Ward 2 Alderman and the only Black board member, has said that the new districting plan violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits drawing election districts in ways that improperly dilute minorities’ voting power. Under the new plan, the Black voting-age population of Ward 2 will be reduced from 73.72% to 44%.
The proportion of Black voters in Miller’s ward was much higher under the 2008 plan because its total population was less than half of what it should have been. Though the percentage of Ward 2’s electorate made up by Black voters decreased under the new plan, the number of Black voters overall increased from 547 to 755.
“That's totally unacceptable. Steps will be taken in the near future on trying to get that resolved,” Miller said.
Miller would not elaborate on what those steps are or if they include legal action.
Mayor Ferguson and some board members have countered Miller's claim by saying that the minority populations of Hernando are more geographically dispersed than they were in 2008 and there was no way to address the population inequities without the dilution seen in Ward 2.
Four of the six plans presented to the board kept the populations of each ward within 10% of each other. Of those options, the adopted plan has the lowest rate of population disparity and the highest Black voting-age population in Ward 2.
Mayor Ferguson said he reached out to Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson and the U.S. Department of Justice for guidance in adopting a new districting plan, but never heard back from either.
Before 2013, Hernando was among those jurisdictions required under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to receive approval for any redistricting plans from the Department of Justice. That subsection of the VRA was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder decision.
Though it should have been done in 2010, according to state law, the board did not begin the process until May of 2016. Mike Slaughter, an urban planning consultant, was hired to draft a redistricting plan, but board members were unsatisfied with it.
The ward lines were drawn using census blocs, which upset some board members because it split some neighborhoods and Homeowners Associations into different wards. The board and the mayor at the time, Chip Johnson, ended their Nov. 15, 2016 meeting by marking up Slaughter’s map how they wanted it to look.
On Dec. 6, Alderman Hobbs and Alderwoman Brooks made a motion to table the issue until Slaughter could come back to address their grievances. The board approved that motion unanimously and the issue remained tabled to this year.
Slaughter did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The board approved a new contract on Feb. 18 with Central Mississippi Planning and Development District for redistricting services. The same issues raised in 2016 dominated board conversations this year, but a plan was finally approved on Nov. 17. Board members and Mayor Ferguson have acknowledged that the 2020 census numbers will require them to throw out the plan that took four years and $68,535.53 to implement. Ferguson said the board fully intends to meet the six-month deadline for redistricting this time.