Lawsuit accuses Mississippi election system of diminishing African American vote

Mississippi has the highest share of African Americans of any state in the country, yet has not had a single African American win state-level, statewide office since Reconstruction.

Mississippi has the highest share of African Americans of any state in the country, yet has not had a single African American win state-level, statewide office since Reconstruction.

A new lawsuit alleges that one of the reasons is a set of provisions in the Mississippi Constitution that “dilutes” the African American vote in favor of white districts and officeholders.

The lawsuit, filed last week by four African American Mississippi voters against Mississippi GOP Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi GOP House Speaker Philip Gunn, accused the state of violating the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution as well as a section of the Voting Rights Act. It called on the court to pull the provisions ahead of the state’s next elections.

“Absent court intervention, the challenged provisions will continue to infringe upon the constitutional and statutory rights of African American voters in Mississippi, dilute African American votes and violate the one-person, one-vote principle in the upcoming general election and in every statewide election for years to come,” the complaint submitted last week to a federal court in Mississippi read.

CNN has reached out to Hosemann. Meg Annison, a spokeswoman for Gunn, said Wednesday morning that he had “not been served with the complaint yet.”

The voters in the suit are represented by a pair of Mississippi attorneys along with a group of Washington lawyers. The National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of an anti-gerrymandering group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, said it is supporting the suit.

“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,” Holder said in a statement. “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.”

In Mississippi, the winners of state-level, statewide offices must win both an outright majority of the popular vote and a majority of state House districts. If no candidate wins both indicators, the state House determines the election.

The lawsuit argued that the process was set up to “entrench white control” of the state and makes it harder for African Americans to win statewide races.

Mississippi’s 1999 gubernatorial race ended without either major-party candidate receiving the requisite majority of votes statewide, and according to an article from The New York Times the following January, the Mississippi House voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, the first time a governor’s race was turned to the House.

The provision requiring that a candidate win a majority of state House districts increases white control because “the vast majority of House districts have a majority-white population that can easily outvote the smaller number of highly concentrated African-American majority districts,” the complaint said.

The suit said the distribution of voters by race through state House districts means a candidate preferred by white voters can win the majority of districts with a much lower share of the overall vote than a candidate preferred by African Americans. It described the provision turning over the election to the state House as a “failsafe” for whites in the state.

The lawsuit sets out the historic context of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, “ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction” and setting up a process “that intentionally and effectively dilutes African-American voting strength in all such elections.”

The lawsuit also noted the 1890 Constitution included a range of racist measures synonymous with the Jim Crow era, including the infamous and since-repealed poll tax.

“The framers of the 1890 Constitution made no secret of their intentions,” the complaint read. “The challenged provisions are the result of a blatant, well-publicized campaign to minimize the political influence of African-Americans in Mississippi.”

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