Voters overwhelmingly kick Jim Crow voting law to the curb

Voters overwhelmingly kick Jim Crow voting law to the curb
The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division announced a plan that will monitor voting locations during the general election. (Source: KEYC)

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On Tuesday, state voters had the chance to get rid of another Jim Crow-Era law, by casting ballots for or against Resolution 47, and they did so in an an overwhelming fashion.

With 78 percent of the vote, in the measure was expected to pass. As of 11:34 p.m., returns showed that 77 percent of voters had cast ballots in favor of the resolution.

The vote means that the state will do away with the two-step process for electing statewide officials outlined in the 1890 constitution.

The process, which required candidates to not only win the popular vote, but also win a majority of state House of Representatives districts, has long been seen as a barrier to prevent African Americans from running for and winning statewide office.

The law was enshrined in the state constitution in 1890, as a way to disenfranchise Black voters, who at the time made up the majority of voters in Mississippi.

“The requirement that you have to win two different metrics to get elected to statewide office reinforced Jim Crow laws so that African American voices would not be heard,” said Beth Orlansky, pro bono counsel with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

“It rarely comes into play, but it’s one of those things that needs to go away.”

Last year, suit was filed in federal court to do away with that law, saying it violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and the “one man, one vote” provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Under the 130-year old constitutional provision, candidates must win the popular vote and a majority of House districts to take office. Currently, there are 122 House districts, meaning 62 are required to win a statewide seat.

If a candidate wins neither a majority popular vote or districts, the election then goes to the state House, where members decide the winning candidate.

The last time that happened in was in 1999, when the governor’s race was too close to call.

That year, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove carried 49.62 percent of the popular vote, compared to Republican challenger Mike Parker, who earned 48.52 percent.

Despite a narrow lead in the vote tally, Musgrove and Parker evenly split House districts, with each receiving 61.

The House, which was at the time was controlled by the Democrats, voted Musgrove in office.

Two lawmakers who were in the House at that time were Rep(s). Alyce Clarke and Earle Banks, both of Jackson. Both voted for Musgrove in 1999, and both say the law needs to be changed.

Clarke said the way the law is set up, whichever party controls the House could determine the results of an election, even if their party doesn’t win the popular vote.

She and Banks believes that had last year’s election between Tate Reeves and Jim Hood gone to the House, the Republican-controlled chamber would have put Reeves in office, even if he didn’t win the popular vote.

“You have to vote with the party on whatever the issue is,” Banks said, referring to the Republicans.

He said the current law also could lead to candidates making deals with House members if their races come before them.

“It doesn’t make for good government,” he said. “The popular vote of the people is adequate.”

Meanwhile, Clarke said members also could be tempted to vote the way residents their districts voted, in hopes of currying favor with their constituents.

“It got attention last year when Jim Hood was running for governor. There was speculation that he might have enough votes to win, but he probably would not win the most House districts. Then it would have gone to the Republican House,” Orlansky said.

“I heard some people say in interviews that the House would have given it to the person who won the most votes, but the constitution doesn’t (require) it,” she said. “It’s not necessary or fair.”

The need for change takes on additional meaning, as the state prepares for redrawing district lines based on U.S. Census data.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying that states with a history of discrimination no longer had to obtain Department of Justice preclearance in drawing district lines.

Previously, states like Mississippi had to submit lines to the justice department to ensure that lines complied with the “one man, one vote” provisions of the act.

In 2019, former Jackson City Councilman Leslie Burl McLemore and six other Black voters filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging the law last year.

The suit was supported by the Mississippi Center for Justice and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

McLemore had asked that the court block the provisions from applying to the November 2019 election. But that request for an injunction was denied, with the judge saying that putting the injunction so close to the election would not be in the best interest of the public.

During the 2020 legislative session, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved House Concurrent Resolution 47, which would amend the state constitution to ensure that any statewide elected official would be elected by popular vote.

Under 47, if no candidate receives a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters in any statewide race would go to a runoff. The winner of the runoff would be declared winner of the race.

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