By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
It's too soon to tell if city elections will be delayed by a request by the Department of Justice for additional information on the city's redistricting plan.
DOJ has to sign off on any changes that affect voting and the city is required to submit a new districting plan every 10 years after a census.
City Councilman Dr. George Thomas says the city has received a letter from DOJ requesting more information, such as a a breakdown of registered voters by race. At a Council of Governments meeting on Monday, Thomas said the letter asked for information on any letters or telephone calls council members had received regarding voting issues. Thomas said he had not received any such correspondence.
"They've also asked questions about race," Thomas said, "people who have voted in the past. Of course by federal law we cannot ask that information so we don't understand why the Justice Department is asking for information that we're prohibited from asking."
This could present a problem for people who want to run for mayor or city council, Thomas said. The qualifying deadline for city elections is March 8, 2013 at 5 p.m. The general election is set for June 4.
Chris Watson, a consultant hired by the city to handle the redistricting plan, said it is not uncommon for DOJ to ask for this type of information.
"Sometimes they ask for the voters by race," Watson said. "Voter registration is not kept by race. They know that and nonetheless they ask for that anyway."
The data is not available in any report, he said.
"There's nothing you can do to provide it because it does not exist," Watson said.
However, the city can make estimates based on data from the 2010 census, Watson said. It will be a matter of providing a best estimate to the DOJ, he said.
"That's what I'm expecting," Watson said.
Watson said he suspects that the questions have stemmed from concern over Ward 5, where there is a decrease in minority proportion.
"I can only speculate that this is the area of concern," Watson said.
He said the DOJ will want to make sure that no minority voting strength will be harmed through redistricting.
However, there is no reason to assume that this will delay the election, according to Watson, who said it's far too early to conclude that there will be a delay. Watson said that is a legal question and he is not an attorney, but "It's tough to stop an election."
Consultants told the City Council last year 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. Ward 5 is represented by Councilman Bobby Smith. Ward 1 is represented by Thomas, who will lose about 1,800 people if the new plan is approved. Ward 4 Councilman Jessie Palmer will gain about 1,400 people. Mary Perry represents Ward 2 and Barbara Henson represents Ward 3.
A response from DOJ had not been received as of presstime on Monday.