Meridian Star

February 12, 2013

‘Hurry up and wait’ on Justice Department

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Associated Press

MERIDIAN —     There is still a possibility city elections will be delayed, depending on how the U.S. Department of Justice rules on Meridian's redistricting of its five wards.

    All voting changes have to be approved by the DOJ before being implemented because Mississippi is among several states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia that are covered under the Section Five provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The law's intent is to make sure that minority voting strength doesn't get diluted during redistricting.

    Ward lines have to be redrawn following each census — the most recent being 2010 — because population shifts are tracked during the census.

    The election for mayor and city council is set for June 4 with the first primaries scheduled for May 7. Runoff elections, if necessary, are set for  May 21.

    The topic of redistricting was of concern to officials attending the Council of Governments Meeting in Meridian on Monday.

    Dr. George Thomas, president of the Meridian City Council and Ward One Councilman, said a DOJ official who spoke with him recently said they may have an answer by mid-March. DOJ has until 60 days prior to the first primary, which is May 7, to provide an answer to the city.

    Depending on the DOJ's answer, the election could be delayed or there could be an election using the old ward lines and another election months later when new ward lines are approved, Thomas said.

    "That's a big quandary right now," Thomas said. "A lot of people don't know where to qualify. Some people who have already qualified may find themselves in another ward. If they qualify as an independent, they are going to have to get those signatures again."

    Part of the qualifying requirements for independent candidates is the procurement of 50 signatures of voters registered in the ward the candidate seeks to represent.

    The qualifying deadline for city candidates is March 8 at 5 p.m. at Meridian City Hall.

    Chris Watson, a consultant hired by the city to handle its redistricting plan, said there has not been an answer from DOJ.

    "We're still in a hurry up and wait for the Department of Justice," Watson said from his Oxford office Monday afternoon. "They have all the requested information and they are doing their task of reviewing it."

    Watson said DOJ will either approve or deny the redistricting plan; DOJ will not develop its own plan.

    "We have asked them to let us know their answer ASAP," Watson said. "They know we have elections forthcoming."

    Consultants told the city council in 2011 that Meridian has experienced a decrease in white population, which dropped by 22.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. The black population has increased by 15.5 percent. These numbers prompted changes in the ward lines.