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The relic from the state’s 1890 constitution, one of several provisions designed to dilute the power of Black voters, was abolished through a ballot initiative that won by a blowout margin.
Mississippi voters on Tuesday scrapped the state's electoral college-style system for electing the governor and other statewide positions, rejecting a Jim Crow-era relic that dated back to the 19th century.
The state will now elect state officials based on the popular vote. In previous elections, candidates for state offices had to win not only the popular vote, but also the highest number of votes in a majority of 122 state House districts. If no candidate reached both thresholds, the state House could choose the winner between the two highest popular vote winners. Now, under the new rules, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the popular vote, the election will move to a runoff.
The old system, rejected by 78% of voters, was created with the state’s 1890 constitution. That document contained a number of voter suppression measures, like poll taxes and literacy tests, that were aimed at limiting the power of Black men enfranchised after the Civil War. Solomon Calhoon, the president of the constitutional convention, made the purpose of the measures clear. “We came here to exclude the Negro,” he said. “Nothing short of this will answer.”
“There’s no doubt [the electoral system] was designed with a specific purpose in mind,” said Marvin King, a professor of political science and African American studies at the University of Mississippi. “If a lot of your voters are concentrated, as Black voters are in Mississippi, getting a geographic majority is going to be really difficult.”
The constitutional amendment was put before voters because of a lawsuit filed over the state’s election system. In 2019, four Black Mississippians sued the Mississippi secretary of state and the House speaker, both Republicans, in federal district court, arguing that the electoral system “intentionally and effectively” diluted the strength of Black voters to “entrench white control of state government by ensuring that the newly enfranchised African-American citizens … would never have an equal opportunity to translate their numerical strength into political power.”
In its defense against the lawsuit, lawyers for the state said that they did not “wish to defend the motivations behind a law allegedly enacted with racial animus” but that the “timing of its filing demonstrate that this lawsuit is not about race, and it is not about vindicating alleged wrongs to plaintiffs’ right to vote—it’s about partisan politics.”
The lawsuit sketched out various scenarios in which modern-day Black Mississippians could see their voting power diminished. Black voters in the state are highly concentrated in certain state House districts and overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates, but white voters who favor Republicans make up the majority in more state House districts. This, the lawsuit claimed, "creates a system in which white-preferred candidates can win a majority of House districts with a smaller percentage of the statewide popular vote than would be required of an African American-preferred candidate."
No candidate who won the state’s popular vote has ever lost the election due to the electoral system—but the lawsuit argued that the system is still fundamentally racially discriminatory.
“Even to the present day, no African American has been elected to statewide office in Mississippi following the enactment of the 1890 Constitution, even though Mississippi currently boasts the highest percentage of African Americans among all states in the nation,” the lawsuit reads.
Backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the suit attempted to block the electoral vote requirement for the 2019 gubernatorial election. A judge declined to do so, saying the timing was too close to the election, and later delayed proceedings to give the state legislature time to change the election system. The constitutional amendment was passed in June by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state House and Senate and sent to voters to consider.
Republican leaders in the state eventually came out in favor of the ballot measure, with Secretary of State Mike Watson saying he was “definitely supportive of moving away from the current system.”
Under the new procedure adopted by voters, which will be used in 2023 the next time Mississippi votes on a governor and other statewide positions, candidates can be elected by a majority of voters. As in Louisiana and Georgia, however, if neither candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will be held.
Will the abolition of the electoral college system result in more Black candidates, or the Democratic candidates Black voters prefer, winning state office in Mississippi? King doesn’t think so, saying they still have “significant headwinds to campaign against” in a solidly white and Republican-leaning state. “I think this was more of a ‘good housekeeping measure’ that decluttered the state constitution of flotsam that never should have been there to begin with,” he said. “If a Black Democrat did run statewide someday in the future and this kept them from winning, people would point at this Jim Crow relic and say Mississippi is standing in the way of the most basic progress.”
But even if it doesn’t result in a more diverse array of candidates, King says he was surprised by how wide of a margin the measure won approval. “Occasionally Mississippi surprises,” he said. “I think the noteworthy thing about all this is that Mississippi finally took down a relic of Jim Crow without federal intervention.”
“Granted, it took about 50 years after Jim Crow ended,” he continued, while pointing out that Mississippi only officially ratified the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, in 2013. “Mississippi is clearly not a state in a rush to do anything. So the fact that there was momentum to get this done says something.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.