Mississippi prepares to change its "Jim Crow" voting process

Having recently voted to remove the stars and bars from their state flag, Mississippi is now turning their attention to their method of electing statewide officials. Their election method is unique in the United States (at the state level, anyway) in that candidates must not only carry the popular vote but also a majority of support in each of the state’s House districts. This creates a system similar to the electoral college used in federal Presidential elections. A state constitutional amendment to approve this change will reportedly be up for consideration by the voters in November. (Associated Press)

Later this year, the state’s voters will decide whether to dump a statewide election process that dates to the Jim Crow era.

Facing pressure from a lawsuit and the possibility of action from a federal judge, legislators are putting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in November.

The amendment would simplify elections for governor and other statewide officials by erasing an Electoral College-type provision from Mississippi’s 1890 constitution — one that was written to dilute Black voting power and maintain white control of state politics.

Mississippi’s election rule is certainly something of an outlier when compared to the rest of the country. In fact, at the state level, it’s unique. And when you consider the time period when it went into effect (1890), you can certainly argue that it would fall under the broader category of Jim Crow laws. But does that make it illegal or unconstitutional in some fashion?

Obama era Attorney General Eric Holder obviously thinks it does. He’s gone on record saying that the law “violates the principle of one-person, one-vote.” The Mississippi Center for Justice is representing the plaintiffs in a pending case seeking to overturn the law, saying that it “clearly shows intent to circumvent the rights of African Americans.”

I’m not sure how far either of those arguments would make it in the courts. The Constitution is largely silent on the matter, but it’s generally left to the states as to how they conduct their own internal elections. While you might be able to make the case that this system dilutes the support of Black candidates to the advantage of whites, that’s not how it’s been working out in practice, particularly in modern times. When neither candidate manages to secure both the popular vote and the support of a majority of House districts, the race is tossed to the state House to decide the matter. The last time that happened was in the 1999 gubernatorial race. Both of the viable candidates were white and the House wound up giving the race to the Democrat.

As to the one-person, one-vote principle, this system is almost a mirror image of our federal election process for selecting presidents. Is Eric Holder saying that it’s potentially unconstitutional because it copies what the founders put in the constitution for a different election? That seems like a long row to hoe in a court challenge.

While this mandate from the state constitution may certainly have had not only the look but the practical effect of sidelining minority voters in the latter part of the 19th century, it speaks to a lot of different cultural divides today. Speaking as someone who lives in upstate New York, I sort of wish that our leadership had shown the foresight to put something like this in our state constitution back in the day. That might prevent liberal Democrats in New York City from dominating every statewide election. But they didn’t, so we’re stuck in that sorry state of affairs.

No matter how you feel about it, Mississippi is handling this matter in the correct fashion. Rather than attempting to enact some mandate from on high, they are putting the question of whether or not to amend the state constitution to the voters. If a majority of them want to see this change, then it will happen. The real question is what the activists will do or say if the voters reject the proposal this fall and opt to keep what they’ve had for more than a century.