Citizens of Mississippi Sue the State to End Discriminatory Post-Reconstruction Era Electoral Schemes

Citizens of Mississippi Sue the State to End Discriminatory Post-Reconstruction Era Electoral Schemes

The National Redistricting Foundation is Supporting the Lawsuit 

Today, African-American voters in Mississippi Leslie-Burl McLemore, Charles Holmes, Jimmie Robinson, Sr., and Roderick Woullard are suing state officials over electoral schemes that were devised during the post-Reconstruction era, as part of Mississippi’s notorious 1890 Constitutional Convention, with the intent of entrenching white control of the state government and preventing African-American citizens from having an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to statewide office. The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction asking the Court to ensure African-Americans have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the 2019 election.

The Mississippi Constitution requires a candidate for statewide office to obtain a majority of the statewide popular vote (“Popular-Vote Rule”) and also win, with a plurality, a majority of the Mississippi House of Representatives districts (“Electoral-Vote Rule”), in order to be elected. If no candidate satisfies both of these requirements, then the members of the Mississippi House of Representatives choose the winner of the election from among the two leading candidates in terms of the popular vote (“House-Vote Rule”). Under these provisions, the House can elect the second-place candidate over the person who received the most votes statewide. The National Redistricting Foundation (NRF) is supporting the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The case will be litigated by Marc E. Elias and Uzoma Nkwonta from Perkins Coie and Robert McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

“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,” said Eric H. Holder, Jr., the 82nd Attorney General of the United States. “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.  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.”

Following the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment, which protected African Americans’ access to the franchise, and after years of increased African American political participation, Mississippi convened a Constitutional Convention in 1890 with the intent of disenfranchising African-American voters and protecting white supremacy. The Popular-Vote Rule creates a barrier to the election of African-American preferred candidates even when the white vote in a statewide election might splinter. The Electoral-Vote Rule creates an additional barrier because the vast majority of House districts have been drawn with a majority-white population; in fact, expert analysis shows an African-American preferred candidate needs to obtain approximately 55% of the popular vote or more to win a majority of House districts. Finally, the House-Vote Rule ensures that even if white voters disagree over a preferred candidate, the House, which is still dominated by representatives from majority white districts, would decide the winner of the election, rather than African-American voters.

Taken together, this trifecta of racially motivated electoral provisions violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because they were passed with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race and still have the effect of diluting or denying outright African-American votes. The Electoral-Vote Rule also violates the one-person, one-vote principle, mandated by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it causes some votes cast in statewide elections to count more than others, and infringes upon the rights of all Mississippians.

The challenged provisions of the Mississippi Constitution, taken together with the state’s long history of discrimination, have succeeded in accomplishing the goal of the 1890 Constitutional Convention—preventing African Americans from ever again being elected to statewide office in Mississippi. Since the institution of these electoral schemes, not a single African American has been elected Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Auditor, Insurance Commissioner, or Agriculture Commissioner.

The National Redistricting Foundation, a 501(c)(3) affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was formed in 2017 to pursue legal challenges to gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts and to engage in work that affects the redistricting process. The Foundation also looks at all voting and election restrictions that suppress the ability of voters to elect the representatives of their choice.

The Mississippi Center for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law organization committed to advancing racial and economic justice. Supported and staffed by attorneys, community leaders and volunteers, the Center develops and pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide. 

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Patrick Rodenbush