Mississippi’s long-standing laws that prevent African Americans from voting or assuming political power are being challenged in the courts on several fronts.
The state’s population is 38% African American, the highest percentage in the country. But its laws are designed to make it harder for people of color to win statewide office. Formerly incarcerated people find it all but impossible to vote once they leave prison. And laws in the state specifically limit black Mississippians’ representation in the state legislature.
But ahead of a consequential governor’s race that could affect the state’s redistricting process in 2021, those laws are all being challenged in the courts.
Mississippi’s African American voting bloc could prove even more critical than usual this November. The state’s four-term attorney general, Jim Hood, has a shot at winning the state’s gubernatorial seat in the general election against either Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves or former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller, who face off in a Republican primary runoff election this month.
The race for governor will have major impact on whether Republicans gain complete control over the redistricting process and unchecked authority to redraw racially divided districts, as they did in 2012.
Those 2012 legislative district lines are currently being challenged in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three African American residents of one of the state’s racially drawn senate districts, and a former state senator who was unseated in 2015 after the new maps moved him into the gerrymandered district.
The lawsuit argues that the state legislature diluted the voting strength of lower-income African Americans in the district by mixing in wealthy, white sections of a neighboring county, according to the Skanner News.
But arguably the most consequential legal challenges are to Mississippi’s racist 1890 Jim Crow-era constitution, which explicitly intended to block the African American vote and give whites permanent power.
Some aspects of the constitution were 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.
Lawmakers at the time created “a constitution that would consolidate political power with white people in Mississippi by systematically disenfranchising black people in Mississippi,” said Paloma Wu, senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It was extremely effective at what it was headlined to do, which was to achieve white political power on the basis of white supremacy.”
The constitution created election rules that attempts to give a decided advantage to white candidates vying for statewide office.
Winners of statewide office in Mississippi 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. Since the constitution was enacted, no African American has ever been elected to a statewide office.
But a group of four African American voters represented by a foundation affiliated with former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, challenged the racist election rules in federal court in May.
The lawsuit argues that Mississippi’s electoral system violates 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. Mississippi has defended the election rules, claiming the lawsuit is all about “partisan politics” and not protecting the voting rights, according to the Starkville Daily News.
Mississippi’s constitution also issued lifetime voting bans on people who were convicted of a number of arbitrary felonies that at the time were considered to most likely ensnare African Americans for crimes like timber larceny and writing a bad check. Regaining the vote requires a lengthy and complicated process in which both chambers of the state legislature need to approve restoration of the voting rights, and even then return of the franchise is subject to a veto by the governor.
The SPLC and the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, challenged the state’s lifetime ban in federal court last year. The lawsuit argued the lifetime ban constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and the re-enfranchisement legislative process violated a person’s First Amendment right to political expression, and was intended to discriminate on the basis of race.
On Wednesday, a federal judge allowed Mississippi’s laws to stand but allowed for the SPLC to challenge the discriminatory intent of the voter restoration legislative process in a trial and appeal the other parts of the court’s ruling at a higher court.
It’s not just Mississippi’s laws that are racist.
A number of Mississippi’s most powerful politicians have a long history of racial bias, especially when it comes to allowing African Americans to participate in the political system.
State Sen. Michael Watson (R), who is now running for Mississippi’s secretary of state, was part of a legal team that tried to overturn an election because a large number of African Americans voted for former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran during the state’s 2014 Republican primary runoff election. Cochran narrowly defeated Tea Party darling and state Sen. Chris McDaniel during that election.
Court documents filed by Watson’s law firm claimed Cochran won because of “voting irregularities” and called the African American votes, “crossover votes,” Mississippi Today reported.
Racist attitudes are pervasive and permeate government office at the highest level. Just last year, during her race against African American political opponent Mike Epsy (D), now-U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) told one supporter that if they “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”