The Mississippi Capitol

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood could win the most votes on Nov. 5 for the office of governor and never get to spend one night in the Governor’s Mansion thanks to a Republican-controlled Mississippi House of Representatives.

Imagine a scenario where Hood garners 48 percent of the vote and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves gets 47.7 percent.

In that scenario, the election for governor could be decided by the 122 members of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Bobby Harrison

Now imagine a scenario where the political eyes of the nation – the cable news channels and others – are focused on Mississippi and its House of Representatives.

Such a scenario is not that far-fetched.

Many believe that the anticipated governor’s election between Hood and Reeves will be the most competitive since at least 2003 when Republican Haley Barbour upended Democratic incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. And many believe a Hood-Reeves election will be painfully close.

Add a third party candidate or two to the mix and the likelihood that no one garners a majority vote increases substantially. If outgoing Supreme Court Justice William Waller Jr. opted to run as an independent, as has  been rumored, that would definitely increase the likelihood no candidate would garner a majority of the votes.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, left, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speak during the Neshoba County Fair Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

Under Mississippi’s 1890s Constitution if no candidate for governor or for the other seven statewide offices garners a majority vote — 50 percent plus one, then it is up to the Mississippi House to decide the winner between the top two vote-getters.

The archaic provision of the Constitution also requires the winning candidate to win a majority of the 122 House districts in order to capture the seat.

Let’s get this straight – to be elected to statewide office the Mississippi Constitution requires a candidate to obtain a majority vote and win a majority of the House districts.

It is generally conceded the language was added to the 1890s Constitution by the white ruling class as a safeguard to ensure that African Americans, who were still a majority in Mississippi, would not win election to statewide office. By that time, laws also were being put in place to disenfranchise black voters and legislative districts were not based on population.

At any rate, now only Mississippi and one other state have such a provision. While the language was added in Mississippi because of racial enmity, it is not clear why the language was added in Vermont.

And, perhaps the language related to the Legislature deciding the election is the only thing the Magnolia State and the Green Mountain State have in common, though, granted apparently Vermonters like Mississippians like their guns.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson has introduced legislation to change the Constitution so that the top vote-getter would win the office of governor and the other statewide posts. That legislation is likely to die this session as it has in other sessions.

In three consecutive elections in the 1990s, the constitutional language came into play. In the 1991 race for lieutenant governor, no candidate garnered a majority vote, but incumbent Democrat Brad Dye sent a letter to the House conceding to the top vote-getter Republican Eddie Briggs.

Then in 1995, Briggs sent a letter to the House conceding to Musgrove who captured a majority of the vote for lieutenant governor, but did not win a majority of the House districts.

But after the 1999 election, one of the most memorable votes in the history of the House occurred when Republican Mike Parker — who lost the popular vote — refused to concede to Musgrove in the race for governor. Musgrove won a plurality of the votes and amazingly both candidates won 61 of the state’s 122 House districts.

By a vote of 86 to 36 the Democratic-controlled House elected fellow Democrat Musgrove. Most argued that it only made sense that the person who won the most votes should win the Governor’s Mansion.

If such a scenario occurred this year it would be the newly elected House members who would cast the deciding vote on the first day of the 2020 session in early January.

Assuming that the Republicans maintain their majority in the House, it would be interesting to see how they would vote if Hood won the popular vote but did not win a majority or did not win the most votes in a majority of the House districts.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.