Mississippi could drop Jim Crow-era statewide voting process

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Honor guard members from the Mississippi National Guard practice folding the former Mississippi flag before a ceremony to retire the banner on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, inside the state Capitol in Jackson. The ceremony happened a day after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a law that removed the flag’s official status as a state symbol. The 126-year-old banner was the last state flag in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem. (AP Photo/Emily Wagster Pettus)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi just ditched its Confederate-themed state flag. 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 astate 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 is the only state with such a system for state elections.

If voters adopt the amendment, a statewide candidate receiving a majority of the popular vote would win. If nobody receives that in a race with at least three candidates, the top two would go to a runoff.

Legislators’ final action to put the amendment on the ballot happened Monday, a day after they took historic votes to retire a 126-year-old state flagthat was the last in the U.S. with the Confederate battle emblem. Amid widespread protests over racial injustice, Mississippi faced growing pressure to drop a symbol that’s widely condemned as racist.

A commission will design a new Mississippi flag without the rebel symbol and with the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Voters will be asked to accept or reject the new flag Nov. 3, the same day the amendment and the presidential race are on the ballot.

Mississippi Center for Justice is one of the groups representing plaintiffs in a 2019 lawsuit against the state. The center’s president, Vangela M. Wade, said documents show the complex electoral process was created to uphold white supremacy.

“As you go back through these documents, there’s language that clearly shows intent to circumvent the rights of African Americans,” Wade said Thursday.

About 38% of Mississippi’s residents are Black. The lawsuit — backed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — argues that Mississippi’s election system violates the principle of one-person, one-vote.

The Mississippi Constitution currently requires a statewide candidate to win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of electoral vote. One electoral vote is awarded to the candidate receiving the most support in each of the 122 state House districts.

If no candidate wins both the popular vote and the electoral vote, the race is decided by the state House. But representatives are not obligated to vote as their districts did, so arm-twisting could decide the outcome.

The process was written when white politicians across the South were enacting laws to erase Black political power gained during Reconstruction. The electoral vote was promoted as a way for the white ruling class have the final say in who holds office.

Plaintiffs argued that Mississippi’s history of racially polarized voting means that candidates preferred by Black voters must receive a higher share of the statewide vote to win a majority of House districts.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III wrote last November that he has “grave concern” about the constitutionality the electoral vote provision. Jordan wrote that the plaintiffs’ argument about violation of one person, one vote is “arguably … their strongest claim.”

Jordan put the lawsuit on hold in December, saying he would give legislators a chance to remedy the system by putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. The amendment will need approval from a simple majority of voters.

The last time a governor’s race was thrown to the Mississippi House was 20 years ago. Nobody received the required majorities in a four-person race for governor in 1999. The top two candidates were white, and each won 61 electoral votes. In January 2000, House members chose Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who led the popular vote, over Republican Mike Parker. At the time, the House was controlled by Democrats. It is now controlled by Republicans.

Some Democrats thought the electoral provision might come into play in a tight 2019 governor’s election, but Republican Tate Reeves easily defeated Democrat Jim Hood and two lesser-known candidates.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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