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Mississippi Votes to End Jim Crow Electoral College-Like System; Popular Vote to Choose Governor

Long polling lines
Voters statewide, like those seen here at the Marks Apartment precinct in Madison County, waited hours in line to vote on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Nate Schumann.

Mississippi has voted to end a Jim Crow-era constitutional provision intended to dilute the Black vote and ensure white voters would be able to choose governors and other statewide officials. It created an electoral college-like system requiring candidates for statewide office to win, not only the popular vote, but also a majority of Mississippi House districts.

With 67% of the vote in at 10:35 p.m., about 78% of Mississippi voters had approved the change.

Now, though, the popular vote alone will decide the victor in races for governor and the state’s other top offices.

After Mississippi’s Legislature amended the state constitution in 1890, white supremacist Missisippi House Rep. James K. Vardaman was not shy about declaring its purpose in the post-Reconstruction landscape.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n*gger from politics—not the ignorant, but the n*gger,” said Vardaman, known as Mississippi’s “Great White Chief,” who served as speaker of the Mississippi House and, later, as a governor and U.S. senator.

The new Jim Crow constitution steamrolled civil rights and voting-rights gains Black Mississippians had made in the years during the Civil War and slavery’s end. Decades later, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ended many of its provisions, such as literacy tests and poll taxes for voting.

On Election Day, Mississippi voters had the opportunity to vote to rid the state constitution of a remnant that still remains from the one Vardaman helped design: A state-level elections law similar to the national electoral college system that requires candidates for eight statewide offices, including governor, to win not only the popular vote, but a majority of House districts. 

Under the system, if a candidate does not win both the popular vote and a majority of House of Representative districts, the Mississippi House decides the winner.

When the Jim Crow constitution was crafted in 1890, Black Mississippians accounted for a majority of the state. If Black men had been able to overcome other Jim Crow provisions and exercise the right to vote, the system would have ensured white Mississippians still maintained power over the state’s top leaders; white Mississippians represented a majority in most house districts at the time.

A campaign of government-sanctioned racial terror, intimidation tactics and the other Jim Crow provisions made the provision moot, however. The provision did come into play in 1999, however, when Democrat Ronnie Musgrove won the popular vote for governor, but not a majority of House districts. But Democrats still held a strong majority in the Mississippi House, which declared Musgrove the winner.

The law became a flashpoint in last year’s statewide elections, though, when then-Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, mounted a close race for the top job against then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who ultimately won in an election where all statewide winners were Republican. Democrats worried that, if Hood had won the popular vote but not a majority of House districts, the House, which now has a Republican supermajority, would have declared Reeves the victor anyway.

A group of Mississippians challenged the law in federal court last year with assistance from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

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