Mike Espy for US Senate
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Mississippi: This fall, Mississippi voters will have their chance to repeal a provision of the state's Jim Crow-era constitution that deliberately penalizes Black voters and the Democrats they support in elections for statewide office. However, the proposed change could end up replacing one major hurdle for Democratic candidates with another.
Last week, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill placing a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would change the way the state conducts elections by eliminating Mississippi's version of the Electoral College, a key feature of the state's 1890 constitution that proponents openly announced was enacted "to secure to the State of Mississippi 'white supremacy.'"
The provision in question requires candidates for statewide offices such as governor or attorney general to win not only a majority of the vote but also a majority of the state House's 122 districts. If no candidate surpasses both thresholds, the members of the House choose the winner, and there's nothing to stop them from picking the person who lost the popular vote.
After Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011, they redrew their own districts to guarantee they'd never lose their grip on power. They did so by making sure a majority of districts would be heavily white and, therefore, heavily Republican. As a result, they not only gerrymandered the state House, they gerrymandered every statewide election, too. The effect was so pronounced that in last year's race for governor, which Democrat Jim Hood lost by 52-47, Hood would likely have had to win by 15 points just to have a shot at carrying 62 House districts.
This proposed amendment would no longer require candidates for statewide office to carry a majority of the state House districts, but it would mandate a separate general election runoff if no candidate earned a majority of the vote. Georgia has had a similar runoff law on the books for years, and those runoffs have consistently seen turnout plummet and hurt Democratic candidates. If Mississippi Republicans wanted to ensure candidates are elected with majority support, they could instead replace the current system with instant-runoff voting or another preferential voting system that would eliminate the need for a separate runoff election.
Even if this amendment fails to pass, it may not be the last word. Last year, a group of Black voters challenged this mini-Electoral College in federal court on the grounds that it violated the Constitution's guarantee of one person, one vote. While the judge who heard the case agreed, he put the suit on hold to give lawmakers time to correct the problem themselves. If they fail to, the judge said, he'd allow litigants to once more pursue their claims.
• Mississippi: Last month, Republican Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood by a modest 52-47 margin to become the next governor of Mississippi, but thanks to a unique relic of Jim Crow that’s still very much alive today, Reeves could have lost the popular vote by double digits yet still won the election.
As we've previously detailed, the state's 1890 constitution, which was officially enacted "to secure to the State of Mississippi 'white supremacy,'" is still in effect today, and among its provisions is an “electoral college” for statewide elections that deliberately penalizes black voters and the Democrats they support.
The provision in question requires candidates for offices such as governor or attorney general to win not only a majority of the vote but also a majority of the state House’s 122 districts. If no candidate surpasses both thresholds, the members of the House choose the winner, and there’s nothing to stop them from picking the person who lost the popular vote.
Republicans have controlled the state legislature since 2011, and as soon as they took charge, they redrew their own districts to guarantee they’d never lose their grip on power. They did so by making sure a majority of districts would be heavily white, and therefore heavily Republican. As a result, they not only gerrymandered the state House, they gerrymandered every statewide election, too.
To find out just how big of a penalty this system imposes on Mississippi Democrats, who overwhelmingly rely on the support of black voters, we compiled the results of every contested statewide election in 2019 broken down by state House district. Even though Reeves won the popular vote by just 5 points, that victory translated into a crushing 74-48 win at the district level, meaning he won 61% of the state’s "electoral votes." But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.
We can also ask ourselves what it would have taken for Hood to have carried a majority of House districts. One way we can answer that question is by ranking every district from most Republican to most Democratic, ranging from Reeves' largest margin of victory to Hood's largest margin, and finding the district in the middle. Reeves won that median district 60-39, 15 points to the right of his 5-point statewide win.
Let’s give that number some context. Imagine instead that Hood had won the popular vote. If every district had swung in Hood’s favor by the same amount, Reeves could have lost the popular vote by up to 15 points yet still have become governor. Put another way, Hood would have had to win statewide by at least 15 points just to have a chance to grab a majority of districts in the House. For a Democrat in Mississippi, a margin like that is an impossible dream.
Knowing this, a group of black voters challenged this law in federal court earlier this year, and the case remains ongoing. The judge hearing the case declined to temporarily block the law shortly before Election Day, but he wrote that the plaintiffs are "right" that requiring candidates to win a majority of state House districts violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of “one person, one vote.”
While this suit wouldn’t have affected the outcome of November’s election, it could impact future races. A century and a half after the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow still lives on in Mississippi, but a just ruling could finally end one of its worst electoral manifestations.