A group of black voters is challenging Mississippi’s racist, Jim Crow-era laws that try to give a decided advantage to white candidates vying for statewide office, ahead of a critically important election for governor that is expected to totally remake the state’s redistricting process.
The group is represented by a foundation affiliated with former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is tasked with pushing for fair election maps.
Four African American voters filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi on Thursday, challenging the state’s 1890 Constitution that set racist election rules.
In Mississippi, winners of statewide office have to clear two hurdles. They not only have to win a majority of the state’s popular vote, but a majority of House districts as well. Lawmakers get to pick a winner if a candidate fails to satisfy both criteria.
According to the lawsuit, the state Constitution was written by white supremacists who tried to ensure that the newly enfranchised African American population never took political control in the state.
“The architects of this system for electing candidates to statewide office had one goal in mind: 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,” the lawsuit stated.
“This discriminatory electoral scheme achieved, and continues to achieve, the framers’ goals by tying the statewide-election process to the power structure of the House. So long as white Mississippians controlled the House, they would also control the elections of statewide officials.”
The challenge to Mississippi’s election system was filed just months before the state’s gubernatorial election in November. The winner of that race will have a say in the state’s redistricting process in 2021.
Holder’s NDRC is focused on ending Republican gerrymandering during the upcoming redistricting process. The GOP succeeded in drawing up election boundaries that were hugely favorable to Republicans during the last decennial redistricting in 2011, including Mississippi. The NDRC has filed several anti-gerrymandering lawsuits and is trying to get Democrats elected in states where Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office — and consequently, the remapping process — as is the case in Mississippi.
Mississippi’s congressional maps were drawn so racially skewed in 2011 that a federal court recently forced the state to redraw one of its most egregious districts.
Under the current system, Mississippi’s ability to pack African Americans into several small state legislative districts gives its white population much more power when electing candidates to statewide office.
As the lawsuit states, “the vast majority of the House districts have a majority-white population that can easily outvote the smaller number of highly concentrated African- American majority districts.”
Mississippi’s history of preventing black Americans from vying for elective office dates back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in several Southern states.
At the time Mississippi’s election laws were created, black Americans represented the majority of the state’s population, with African Americans holding several statewide seats, according to the lawsuit. Today, about 38% of the state’s population is African American, the highest percentage of any state in the country. But since the 1890 Constitution was enacted, no African American has ever been elected to a statewide office.
“For more than a century, African Americans in Mississippi have been forced to vote in an electoral system that was intentionally created to dilute their voting power,” Holder said in a statement.
“Mississippi’s long, sordid history of racial discrimination and politicians who exploit racial divisions only perpetuate this broken system in which African American interests are woefully underrepresented in the state government,” he said. “This lawsuit seeks to level the playing field so that African American voters are finally able to exercise their right to elect the candidates of their choice to lead Mississippi.”
According to the lawsuit, Mississippi’s electoral system violated the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution that gave black Americans the right to citizenship and the right to vote, as well as the Voting Rights Act that banned discriminatory voting laws.
In fact, stopping black people from voting was the very basis of Mississippi’s laws, the lawsuit stated. The 1890 Constitution also rolled out several other Jim Crow laws that have since been struck down by the Supreme Court and the Voting Rights Act, including poll taxes and literacy tests — along with a clause that exempted most white people from being subjected to either.
Just two years after the state’s Constitution was enacted, only 9,000 black Americans remained on the state’s voter rolls and one of its local newspapers trumpeted the fact that Mississippi’s political map no longer contained a “black belt.”
Over the past decade, a number of Mississippi’s elected officials also broadcasted their racism when running for office in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the lawsuit mentions.
For instance, in 2010 former Governor Haley Barbour (R) said he did not remember Jim Crow laws as being “that bad.” In 2017, state House member Karl Oliver (R) wrote on Facebook that people who want to remove Confederate statues should be “lynched.”
And last year, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), when running against African American political opponent Mike Espy (D), told one of her supporters that if they “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”