The Mississippi Legislature is currently engaged in redistricting, once-a-decade work to redraw state legislative and congressional maps. Redistricting can be done fairly, so that all voters can have their voices heard equally and given a chance to elect representatives of their choice. It can also be done to dilute the voice of certain groups while amplifying the political power of others. For example, in 2018 in Ohio, Republicans won 53% of the statewide vote but managed to win 12 out of 16 congressional seats. This unfair result was achieved through gerrymandering, the practice of engaging in redistricting in an unfair, partisan manner, which allows elected officials to choose their voters. Democrats in Maryland, and politicians in other states across the country, have engaged in similar unfair gerrymandering.
We believe voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around.
To hold public officials to account, it is therefore important that redistricting efforts – and all public policy for that matter – be done with transparency and with public input. That is why the ACLU of Mississippi and its partner organizations filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Mississippi Redistricting Committee.
This Committee held a total of three public meetings to deliberate on congressional redistricting, which together lasted 45 minutes. At the same time, the Committee admittedly has done substantial work behind closed doors to redraw Mississippi’s congressional districts. To achieve this result, the Committee had to draw, consider, and decide on proposed maps; meet to consider how to alter the boundaries of the existing map, what impact those alternations would have on various communities, how to weigh public comments, whether the proposed maps meet state and federal law, and which map to propose to the full legislature. This work takes weeks or months to complete.
The Committee performed little if any of this work in public, choosing instead to work behind closed doors.
The Committee chose privacy even though Mississippi has had a government transparency law called the Open Meetings Act for almost 50 years. In that Act, the Legislature declared that it is “essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society . . . that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”
It is evident that the Mississippi Redistricting Committee’s work does not adhere to this philosophy.
Unfortunately, the Mississippi Ethics Commission dismissed our complaint under the reasoning that the Open Meetings Act only applies when enough Redistricting Committee members are present to take official action, i.e., when a “quorum” is present. That means that public officials and government bodies can do all their work in private, not subject to public scrutiny or input, as long as they do so in small groups.
This result harms Mississippians, who deserve and are entitled to transparency, and instead gives public officials the ability to work in secret.
We must ask ourselves whether we are happy with this state of affairs. We must speak up if we are not. We all must continue to fight towards a transparent government that is responsive to the people.