Mississippi’s little-known and usually irrelevant two-tiered system for electing its governor and other statewide officials may very well have been set up to ensure white political control.
Much of what’s included in the 1890 constitution, in which this two-tiered process was introduced, had that precise motivation in mind.
Still, it is worth noting that the scenario about which black plaintiffs are worrying — a Democratic candidate winning the popular vote but having the victory overturned by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives — is only plausible because of the past cooperation and sometimes insistence of blacks in race-based legislative gerrymandering.
On Friday, federal Judge Daniel P. Jordan III heard the arguments in a lawsuit that seeks to remove one of the two hurdles over which a statewide candidate in Mississippi must jump to win a general election. Under the nearly 130-year-old system, a statewide candidate — from governor to insurance commissioner — must win both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the vote in the 122 House districts in order to be elected. If no candidate in the contest meets both of these requirements, then the election goes to the House, where members are free to vote for whichever candidate they wish, regardless of how their own constituents voted.
Although Mississippi is the only state with this twofold requirement, rarely has it come into play. The last time was in the 1999 gubernatorial contest between Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Mike Parker. Two fringe candidates in the race kept either of the two main party candidates from winning a majority, and Musgrove and Parker evenly split the electoral tally, 61 to 61. Although there was a little bit of intrigue leading up to the House vote, ultimately lawmakers gave the nod to Musgrove since he received 8,300 more votes statewide than Parker.
It also helped Musgrove that the House, at that time, had a Democratic majority. Had Republicans had the supermajority that they now claim, it might have been a different story.
With Democrat Jim Hood locked into what is expected to be a close contest with Republican Tate Reeves on Nov. 5, there is reasonable speculation that the 1999 scenario could be repeated but with a different outcome for the Democrats.
Thus, the lawsuit.
Jordan signaled on Friday that, with few federal guidelines or precedents on which to rely, he isn’t confident about his ruling, whatever it ends up being.
“No matter what I do, I would encourage the other side to appeal immediately,” he said.
The plaintiffs have a couple of problems with their case.
First, no one has been harmed yet. Their lawsuit is based on speculation of what might happen, rather than on a harm that has been done. Courts are usually reluctant to intervene where no injury has occurred.
Second, the reason the deck is stacked in the electoral vote in favor of Republicans is because, in order to ensure the election of black candidates to the Legislature, black voters have been packed into certain districts, thus diluting their influence elsewhere, including in the electoral college.
Initially, most of this racial gerrymandering was done at the insistence of the federal government — either through the U.S. Justice Department or the federal courts — in order to redress decades of blatant discrimination against black candidates and voters.
But in more recent history, the gerrymandering has been done in concert between white Republicans and black Democrats — effectively squeezing out white Democrats in most parts of this state.
Black politicians, once elected to the Legislature, have behaved the way most incumbents do. They have been more concerned about solidifying their hold on their particular seat than in broadening the base of their party. As a result, Democrats have become regionalized, dominant in pockets of the state, such as the Delta, but unable to build a coalition that can be competitive in most statewide races.
The only Democrat in the previous three elections to win statewide office is Hood. If he loses to Reeves next month, odds are that the Republicans will claim all eight of the statewide offices for the first time in modern history.
And they won’t need any help from the GOP House to do so.