A federal appeals court is reviewing the dismissal of a lawsuit that claims Black voters in Hattiesburg, Miss., have been marginalized by the city’s decision to count thousands of college students in drawing its ward boundary lines.
Lawyers for the southern Mississippi city on Monday asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court’s ruling that Hattiesburg’s inclusion of college students for redistricting didn’t violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A three-judge panel from the appeals court didn’t immediately rule.
Ellis Turnage, an attorney for several Black Hattiesburg voters who are named as plaintiffs in the suit, said Blacks in 2005 accounted for an estimated 52 percent of the city’s registered voters but have had their voting strength diluted by racial gerrymandering.
Hattiesburg has a Black mayor, and two of the city’s five city council members are Black. Turnage claims Black voters were packed into two wards, while a majority-White student population living in dormitories or other residences at or near the University of Southern Mississippi accounts for about 60 percent of the people living in another ward.
“College students don’t have the same stake (in an election) as someone who is a homeowner,” Turnage said.
But the city’s lawyers argue in court papers that excluding dormitory students from the count is an “impermissible method of calculation.”
In a 19-page ruling last year, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett said the plaintiffs didn’t show how it’s possible to draw a third majority-Black ward that satisfies “the traditional redistricting criteria” and didn’t prove that counting college students deprived Blacks of an equal opportunity to participate in the city’s political process.
Starrett noted that the city’s voting patterns “still echo the effects of over a century of official discrimination,” but he said Blacks in Hattiesburg have made “remarkable progress” at the ballot box over the past decade.
5th Circuit Judge Jerry Smith said he saw ample evidence in the case that Black voters are “able to participate equally” in the electoral process.
Jerry Mills, a lawyer for the city, said drawing ward lines based on mere estimates of Hattiesburg voters’ racial demographics is “a dangerous use of numbers.”
“It changes,” he said, noting that Blacks accounted for an estimated 48 percent of the city’s registered voters in 2001. “There was a shift of 4 percent in a four-year period.”
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